There’s no question that the middle school and high school years are tough, for both kids and parents. It’s arguably more important than ever to have open channels of communication with our youth, as one in six children have a diagnosable Mental Health Disorder (nami.org). As parents, there are a number of things we can do to hone our listening skills so that our kids feel comfortable opening up to us.
When your child is ready to talk, here’s how to give them the attention they need.
6 Tips To Open The Lines Of Communication
1) Stay Calm
Children and teenagers differ from adults in their ability to read and understand the emotions expressed in the faces of others. If you’ve ever felt that your child had an emotionally exaggerated response to a slight shift in your expression, you may not be wrong. Adults use the prefrontal cortex, the rational decision-making part of the brain, to read emotional cues. Teenagers rely on the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for emotional reactions. One study showed that when shown pictures of adult faces expressing different emotions, teens most often interpreted them as being angry.
2) Direct Your Focus When Listening
Put down any distractions and turn and look at your child when you are in conversation with them. This shows that you want to be actively engaged in listening and also prevents you from missing any nonverbal communication signs. Put aside your iPhone or tablet during these conversations. Also, don’t insist that they maintain eye-contact with you. Oftentimes people look away when they are feeling uncomfortable or embarrassed. Be glad that they are talking, and focus on your listening.
3) Let Your Child Talk Without Interruption
Don’t interrupt with questions. Allow your child to say what they have to say first and then go back to clarify. If you are busy thinking of your own response, you may miss something important in their delivery. You also run the risk of over-taking the conversation and causing your child to shut down. I often suggest keeping a notebook handy to write down any thoughts or questions that come up while listening. Once your child has finished, go back and paraphrase or summarize what you heard (this is called reflective listening or mirroring) to make sure that you understood correctly.
4) Hold Your Response For After The Height Of Emotion
Sometimes we, as parents, tend to jump in to problem-solve or point out hyperbolic thinking in an attempt to “fix” a problem rather than just allowing our kids to vent. It’s important to allow them to verbally work through their thoughts. Research shows that verbal processing improves emotional wellness.
Be careful not to speak too soon. When your child is upset, they may be too emotionally activated to hear what you are saying. Watch for both verbal and nonverbal cues that your child is winding down. This will happen organically when you are actively engaged and listening, rather than trying to control the conversation. When you see that your child is less activated (maybe their voice is quieter or rate of speech has slowed, they are physically calmer, or their comments are less extreme) they will be less likely to get retriggered in the conversation.
5) Listen Without Judging Or Giving Advice
Trust me: Your child already knows how you feel about most things and can guess your stance on drugs, homework, and chores. During active listening, withhold judgment and provide a safe space for your child to sift through their own thoughts. If your child says something that concerns you, keep your cool and gather more information. This will allow you to understand the complete picture and figure out what support your child needs.
6) Don’t Dictate Your Own Solutions
Keep your responses objective and help your child explore solutions and ideas on their own. Use the “Socratic Method” of learning, which fosters critical thinking. With Socratic thinking, the focus is on giving thought-provoking questions, not answers. Kids often bring up situations that their friends are going through in order to gauge how you would react. If your child says, “My friend is cheating on online schoolwork assignments” don’t respond that she is immoral or that your child should find new friends. Instead say something like, “That class must be really hard. It can seem like cheating is a good option in the short run. Why do you think cheating could be a problem in the long run?” Remember, the only way to know your child’s thoughts and feelings is to create an environment where they will share.
By modeling active listening, openness, and the ability to take constructive feedback, you are setting an example that shows that it’s okay to learn and grow.