By Jean Sunde Peterson, Ph.D., author of Talk with Teens About What Matters to Them: Ready-to-Use Discussions on Stress, Identity, Feelings, Relationships, Family, and the Future
Because teens sometimes seem umbilically connected to technology that allows rapid, physically engaged communication, adults may assume that interaction with them needs to be animated and stimulating. Unfortunately, feeling the pressure, adults might not initiate conversations for fear of being uninteresting. Some are afraid of what teens might tell them, concerned about expectations of advice or “fixing the problem.”
All teens have social and emotional concerns. Adolescence is a complicated stage of development. Teens can feel abnormal and alone. However, adults cannot know what teens worry about unless teens tell us. Peppering teens with questions reflecting the adults’ concerns about them probably won’t open a window to their internal worlds.
My own research and counseling experiences have shown repeatedly that teens can expertly hide even great distress. Disruptive behavior, a perpetually sad face, withdrawal from peers, or lower energy and motivation may indirectly indicate gnawing issues. But by the time adults suspect distress, the concerns may be intense. That’s what makes good listening so important whenever adults have an opportunity to connect with teens.
Giving Up Control
Teachers may feel anxious when “just listening” because they feel less control than when managing a classroom. Effective listening means being open to someone else’s agenda—facilitating conversation without controlling it. Teachers may think that the best approach to connecting with a teen is to ask questions. But questions in conversation usually reflect the questioner’s agenda, interests, and curiosity, not the teen’s. Parents may have similar concerns, intending to show interest by asking questions.
Adults who give away some power in these non-peer conversations can empower teens positively. Meaningful conversations probably include unexpected sidebars or strands—from teens—when adults don’t dominate or control the interaction. I recommend a “one-down” approach (being taught by the teen), not a “one-up” one (teaching the teen).
Helpful listening requires effort and focus. Being preoccupied with fixing or advising can preclude good listening. In contrast, simply “standing solidly beside them” during a stressful time, listening without criticizing or needing to fix situations, and staying poised and not anxious, no matter what teens say, may offer them a rare opportunity to talk without being judged. Adults then learn about the teen world.
When teachers have an opportunity to engage a teen, I recommend “soft” small talk: “How’s it going?” “What kind of day are you having?” “Looks like we’ll have rain the rest of the day. Will you have to be out in it?” “I’m curious. Have you always lived here?” “Are you okay with sitting in the back?” Some of these low-stakes questions are “closed,” answerable with yes or no, but after a few days of these, a longer conversation might happen. Showing interest in a student, with an expectant facial expression, is the key.
For parents, I recommend similar noninvasive questions: “How was school today? I’ve been wondering if the rain/sun/snow/tornado warning affected the kids.” “Who was your best teacher today?” On another day, parents might ask, “Just curious: Which parts of the school do you spend time in? Where in the building do you feel stressed? Where did you feel best today?”
Open-ended questions (beginning with what, how, when, and what kind of) usually generate elaboration and explanation. Tell me about and help me understand, when adults genuinely want more information, are also usually effective.
Here are some imperatives for entering teens’ worlds without judgment:
- Have an open posture. Don’t fold arms, cross legs, or lean back. In fact, lean slightly forward. But don’t encroach on their personal space.
- Give eye contact, but don’t insist on it from them. Eye contact may not feel safe. It actually is discouraged in some cultures. Some disabilities or shyness can also make it difficult.
- Don’t assume you know everything you need to know. Let them inform you.
- Mumble affirmation and validation. “That makes sense.” “Wow.” “Oooh.” “Sorry to hear that.” “That sounds scary/frustrating/upsetting/shocking/overwhelming/difficult.”
- Accept what they say as important from their perspective.
- Keep the focus on them, not on you. The conversation is not about you. Don’t talk about yourself, even if you had similar experiences when you were that age. Don’t be a needy adult.
- Acknowledge that you’re uninformed, but want to learn. “What is it like to be 12 in this complicated world today?”
- Don’t overfunction. Don’t finish their sentences or rescue them. Let them feel. Let them talk.
- Don’t be upset by tears. Have a box of tissues handy and give it to them. You might say, “Tears are okay.” Try not to be afraid of feelings. Your poise tells them that expressing feelings is okay.
- Remember that struggle is not a bad thing. People become resilient through struggle.
- Don’t be concerned about fixing anything. Don’t assume that burden. Fixing can actually be disempowering. Their talking is helpful in itself. Remember how frustrated you feel when a friend, spouse, or partner doesn’t understand that you simply need to vent about a terrible day.
- Don’t think you’re expected to be an expert on teens. It’s okay to be clueless. To learn about teens, adults need to be taught by them.
- Don’t criticize, preach, judge, shame, blame, give advice, or bombard them with questions. Bite your tongue if tempted.
- Don’t act bored.
- Avoid saying should and shouldn’t.
- Don’t say, “Yes, but . . .” It invalidates what they just said.
- Don’t ask why. They usually don’t know why. Knowing why is not as helpful as being heard.
- Don’t say, “I know exactly what you mean.” And don’t say, “That happened to me once,” “You have no reason to feel that way,” or “Don’t you think it would be better if you . . . ?”
- When you don’t understand a response, ask for help. “Help me understand what you meant by . . .”
- Invite them to help you understand the struggles they mention. For example, what “being shy” or “having a bad temper” or “getting into trouble” feels like.
- Don’t overreact. Don’t make what they say a “catastrophe.” They may have thought their experience would be “too much for anyone to hear.” Prove them wrong by listening with poise.
- Make statements instead of asking questions. “That sounds complicated.” “You obviously were quite concerned.” “Relationships can be confusing.” Name the feeling you’re sensing: “It makes sense that you’re angry.” Feelings make sense.
- Give them time to respond. Some want to think first.
- Try to be comfortable with silence.
- Don’t “play psychologist.” Don’t claim to know causes of a problem. Don’t psychoanalyze. This is not helpful in conversations. Being heard is more important. Their talking can help them gain insights and make sense of themselves.
- Make credible comments about their strengths when you have enough information. “I can hear that you’re a survivor.” “You watch people carefully.” “You’re a good problem-solver.” “You’re able to bounce back, and I’m confident that you will do that again. But I know you’re disappointed and hurting now.”
- Thank them for talking with you and helping you understand them better.
Listening skills improve with practice. Initiating and sustaining a conversation with a teen can be edifying for both teen and adult. Conversations are worth the effort and investment required, and teens and adults can both develop skills through them.
Jean Sunde Peterson, Ph.D., is professor emerita and former director of school counselor preparation at Purdue University. A licensed mental health counselor with considerable clinical experience with children and families, she conducts workshops on academic underachievement, high-ability students’ social and emotional development, prevention- and development-oriented group work with children and adolescents, bullying, listening skills for teachers and parents, and more. Dr. Peterson has authored more than 130 books, journal articles, and invited chapters, and her articles have appeared in journals such as Journal of Counseling & Development, Gifted Child Quarterly, Professional School Counseling, and International Journal of Educational Reform. She has received ten national awards for scholarship, as well as numerous awards at Purdue for teaching, research, or service, and was a state teacher of the year in her first career as a classroom teacher. She lives in Indiana.
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