Hearing Is Not the Same as Listening to Your Teen

It is just another Monday.  A mom takes her kids to school, does a few hours of work, runs an errand, and then heads back to the school to pick her kids up at the end of the day. She arrives at the junior high and her daughter is about 20 minutes late. Then, she rushes straight to the  high school to pick up your 9th grader. He gets in the car and starts barking! He is upset that she is 15 minutes late, annoyed that his sister is sitting in the front seat, and mad that he has to go to his aunt’s house for dinner that evening.  Mom recognizes that he is upset and says, “How was your day? Are you ok?” He responds with No! I am not ok! AND, I don’t want to talk about it!” Noticing how upset he is, she decides to sit quietly. Unfortunately, he keeps going. He starts drilling her about being late. “You are always late!  I should just take the bus to school!”  Then, he moves onto his sister. “Why are you sitting in the front seat!?! You know I sit in the front seat!” At this point, your daughter says, “I don’t know why you think you’re so special that you always get the front seat!” There is nothing to do but to declare silence in the car.  She say, “Clearly there are some bad feeling in the car. I think it is best if we don’t talk to one another until we get home.”  So, she drove the remaining 10 minutes in silence and everyone separated to different corners of the house when they got home.

What can she do now? Certainly, this mom could hear how upset her son was when she picked him up from school. How can she listen in such a way that she can understand why he was upset.   First she needs to check her intentions. In other words, why is she interested in listening to her son? To LISTEN BEYOND HEARING involves having one or more of the following intentions:

  1. Being truly interested or enjoying what the other person is saying
  2. Trying to understand someone
  3. Hoping to learn something
  4. Comforting or helping someone
Several, if not all of these intentions could be present for the mother in our example.  Now, lets consider what people do when they are not listening. Don’t feel too bad if you notice that you have had one or more of these intentions in the past. The reason this list exists is because everyone is a poor listener at one time or another. Often, when someone is NOT LISTENING, the person is:
  • Preparing for what to say next
  • Listening for a certain things and ignoring the rest of the conversations
  • Listening for the purpose of talking, rather than to hear the other person
  • Listening because of  obligation  (i.e. being nice, trying to gain their interest/affection, or feeling stuck – you don’t know how to exit the conversation)
  • Listening for the other person’s weaknesses or vulnerabilities
  • Trying to be right: listening for ammunition or weak points in the other person’s argument
Outside of having good intentions, it is important to think about how you are listening. Being a good listener is not about simply sitting in silence and nodding your head.  Effective listening involves using active listening skills. When you are using these skills, you:
  • Pay attention to body language
  • Paraphrase what the other person said so that you can be sure you understood it correctly
  • Clarify what has been said. This is similar to paraphrasing, but you ask questions like: “Did you mean…? Did you say…? Have I understood you right?”
  • Give feedback. After you have paraphrased and clarified, you can share your own senses, thoughts, feelings, reactions in a non-jugemental way.
Going back to our example, what could this mother say to her son.  She may approach her son and say something like, “I can tell your really upset. I am sensing that something happened at school. Is that right?” Her son may say “yes” and continue sharing. He may say “no” and begin clarifying. Or, he may need more prompting. Active listening often requires calmly investigating what is really going on.  “I can tell you are really sad by the look on your face. Is there anything that I can do to help you.” As is often the case, the boy in this story was not upset about his mom being late, or his sister sitting in the front seat of the car. It turns out, the boy failed a test that day, and found out that his ex-girlfriend [who he still cared for] was dating someone else.  These are things most of us would be upset about. Sometimes teens simply cannot fully recognize or control their emotions. In part this is because the emotional part of the brain is very active, while the frontal lobe that controls logical thinking and self-regulation is not fully developed.  The trick is to not take it personally, give yourself the time you need to be present, and then listen compassionately to what your teen is saying. Often, your teen will walk away from that conversation feeling truly heard and ready to move forward.
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