Around age ten, (sometimes earlier, sometimes later) communication begins to change. Without notice, kids may stop hanging onto every word — or sometimes, any word at all. After working with children and adolescents for almost three decades, one thing I have learned with absolute certainty is this: You really need to earn the right to be heard. Yeah, you read that correctly — you have to earn that right.
I know what you’re probably saying, “But I’m the parent, Jules. I mean, come on!” Or maybe you’re the educator and you’re thinking, “But I’m their teacher. Surely that means they need to listen to me.”
I get it. I really do. When you work and live with teens, those moments definitely pop up.
Here’s the truth we as parents, educators and adults need to accept: Assuming that your role in a teen’s life makes you worthy to be heard is a mistake.
A big one.
Guess what, though? According to tweens and teens, it’s not one of the top three communication mistakes adults make.
Let’s dig into each of those mistakes to learn why it’s such a communication-stopper and what to do instead.
The first mistake that parents make when trying to talk to kids is they don’t ask questions. In your child’s mind, you yell, you talk, you babble, you demand…but you don’t ask.
Most kids I talk to say their days are filled with being told to do this, do that, don’t do this, don’t do that. They feel bossed around, lectured, and dismissed — like their opinion doesn’t matter to adults.
When you fail to ask questions, it sends this message of, “Well I already know what you think” or worse, “I don’t care what you think”. And you and I both know that isn’t true.
How to fix it: Make it a point to ask your kiddo’s thoughts, using open-ended questions.
A few examples to get you started…
“What was the weirdest thing that happened at school today?”
“Tell me about what you’re doing in history.”
“What do you think about X, Y, Z?”
These are great ways to show your child that you really are interested in what they think and that their opinions and perspectives matter to you.
Here’s a story about this mistake in action that I observed in my therapy practice recently:
A thirteen-year-old girl came in to see me one day and said, “My dad asked me where I wanted to go to school. I told him I wanted to go overseas and he said, ‘That’s ridiculous. You’re staying right here, and that’s that.'”
The conversation was stopped dead in its tracks. And it left the daughter feeling so unheard and quite frankly, defeated.
The second big mistake parents and other adults make is that they dismiss tween-to-teens’ opinions.
Maybe your child’s answers seem far-fetched or silly or whimsical or illogical (or too logical.) Whatever the reason, adults tend to not take their children’s opinions seriously. And as a result, kids are feeling like their perspectives are ignored.
How to fix it: Ask for more details to hear your kiddo’s point of view, even if you don’t agree.
If the father in my practice had changed his response and said, “Well, tell me more about that,” or, “What made you decide that?” the conversation would have gone much differently.
Without condoning her opinion, he would have gotten more details about his daughter’s interests and dreams and wants and even needs.
And most importantly, it would have allowed her to feel like that her ideas were valid and valued.
That sense of support is exactly what tweens and teens need at this point in their lives. And you do that by simply showing you consider their thoughts, instead of brushing them aside.
Whether we’re distracted by our phones, cooking dinner, rushing around, or during the million other distracting parts of our day; we’ve all pretended to listen but really, well, we aren’t. And when your teen is trying to talk to you when you are distracted, the message he or she receives is is that he or she isn’t worth paying attention to. This, in turn , causes them to shut down the communication channels.
Many parents will say, “But my kiddo always wants to talk to me at the worst possible times.” Yeah, mine do too. And, pardon my directness, too bad.
We have this incredibly small window with our kids. One of the realities of parenting tweens and teens is that a good time for them does not necessarily equal a good time for us. Your child’s readiness to talk is their way of asking you to say, “I love you,” or, “You’re important to me.”
When we respond to that request for love with, “I’m busy, honey, we’ll have to talk later,” your child learns that you’re not available when he/she wants to talk. By the time you’re ready, that small window I was talking about has shut. And the cycle continues because then when you want to talk, your child won’t be available.
How to fix it: It’s tough. But you’ve just got to stop and listen, even if it’s inconvenient.
In that moment when your child approaches you, put down what you’re doing and really listen. Make eye contact to send the message that you’re fully engaged.
Or, if you’re working on something that you really can’t put down, look up to your kiddo and say, “I totally want to hear what you say. Can I have a few minutes to get the stopping point and then we can talk?” Then make sure you follow up in the next 5-10 minutes.
Listening is this rockstar way to show love. When you make time to listen to what your kids have to say, it breaks that unhealthy pattern I mentioned earlier. They’ll start listening to you as well when you want to talk.
Now, it’s your turn. In the comments below, I’d love to hear from you…
And, as always, if you know someone who may appreciate this article, feel free to pass it along.