Hearing refers to the reception and perception of sound, whereas listening is an action: Listening refers to actively paying attention to what is being said. It also requires the listener’s full attention to the speaker, demonstrated by eye contact, and positive body language. In other words, you can’t listen fully to someone if you are also on your phone, your computer, or watching television. This is an important piece to understand as we positively shift the way we interact with adolescents.
One thing I often hear from teens is that they don’t feel like the adults in their lives are listening. The polarizing statement, “You never LISTEN to ME!” punctuated by a slammed door is not an unusual experience for parents of teens. In order to listen to our kids, we have to set aside our reactions and our need to direct or advise. Sometimes, kids need to vent and our best response can be something like, “It sounds frustrating when…” or maybe, “I hear how frustrated you are.” We have to remember that adolescents feel things far more intensely than we do as adults. An issue that is banal to us can FEEL like the end of times.
Adolescents have reduced dopamine and serotonin levels, making them more prone to high-risk activities and addiction. A child who feels listened to and heard, has a higher chance of making a healthy decision than the kid who is perpetually dismissed, talked over or ignored. When a child is saying, “I hate you,” or “This sucks!” there’s probably something else there. They don’t really hate you, but they may not be able to communicate that beyond the natural reactivity of their developing brain. What would happen if we listened instead of reacted? A statement like: “When you are ready, I am available to listen to you” can go a long way with a teenager.
Our children mimic our reactions, our problem-solving methods, and our behavioral examples. If we are always nervous, they may be nervous. If we are angry all the time, they may be angry all the time. If we are overcautious, they may be overcautious. The list goes on but the outcome is the same.
I am prone to sarcasm. I have a sarcastic sense of humor and have my whole life. This has come back to bite me in the bum with my son, who’s 13 and…sarcastic. Instead of punishing him about the trouble this sarcasm often breeds, we looked at this and processed as a family. Our conclusion: We will curb our sarcasm as a family in an effort to shift the negative perspective others may have. My son felt listened to, we felt listened to, and in the end, a dedicated period of reflective listening proved to be an effective and positive way of dealing with a burgeoning family issue. We have conversations like this often and as a result, we have a teenager who is willing to share his frustrations and difficulties with us more transparently than most. Conversely, I have observed some of his classmates spinning down the spiral of negative and harmful reactions: eating or starving to process their feelings, cutting themselves as a means of processing their feelings, smoking to process their feelings, et cetera. There isn’t an easy fix, silver bullet, or magic potion. Creating an environment where listening is part of an everyday process takes work and dedication. And sometimes, we may have to drop our parental need to “fix” things so we can listen.