How to Listen and Communicate With Older Kids
In our last post we talked about How to show you’re listening to young kids, today we’ll discuss listening to older kids, which can be a little more complex. You can help him/her feel heard by completing the same three steps talked about in the previous post, but using language that is age-appropriate and meets his/her needs. It’s never too early or too late to start honoring and respecting your children’s point of view. This is the best way to model for them how to honor and respect your point of view.
Listening to a 14 year old girl…
I want to share a story about a fourteen-year old girl, Sam. Most teenagers don’t approach parents to “discuss” anything. At times, pulling information out of them can be harder than doing your own root canal. In this story, Sam is a teenage girl who does okay in school, for the most part gets along with her parents, and gets into occasional battles with her little brother. She is not a typical happy-go-lucky kid; she is your typical teenager with a good head on her shoulders. Her dad has noticed she has been angry or frustrated lately. Sam had a couple of “meltdowns” in the middle of an activity with her younger brother over one weekend. To her dad, she seemed to have overreacted.
That Sunday, her dad took the opportunity to talk with Sam on the way to dropping her of at the mall. He used a soft and caring (but not patronizing) tone and calmly stated: “Sam, you are such a smart and caring girl, I think you may have been feeling a bit frustrated and upset lately. I just want you to know there’s no issue too small or too big you can’t ask me or tell me about. I’m always here for you and I love you.”
Sam replied: “Okay Dad. It’s nothing. Can I go now please?” and left to go see her friends at the mall. But when her dad picked her up a couple of hours later, she asked whether they could just sit in the car in the parking lot for a while before they headed home. Then, Sam talked to her dad about what was troubling her. She felt relieved and happy after their talk and gave him a thank-you hug before they drove home.
Sometimes, teenagers need a bit of time to process things emotionally before they are ready to open up. The most important things a parent can do are:
- Open the lines of communication.
- Be patient and available.
- Do not judge.
In essence, Sam’s dad said, “You’re clearly upset. You can talk to me about anything. I’m here for you and I love you.”
Why was Sam’s dad’s statement effective and powerful? What message did he send to his daughter, by simply stating the obvious? You may have repeated these same lines many times in conversations with your teen. If you want a better response than you normally get, then stay tuned; because there’s power in the details.
Tone, timing and wording…
Let’s break down his statement:
Part 1: Using a soft tone helps deliver your message even more effectively. Sam’s dad began with, “Sam, you are a smart and caring girl.” This statement emphasizes the child’s strengths in a time of distress. After all, she will have to rely on her own strengths to solve problems and succeed in life. Note, there is no “but” following his statement. Let’s not make her feel like she just heard, “You’re a great kid, but you really screwed up!” Also, when you start a conversation with an angry kid (especially a teenager or a pre-teen), start on a positive note, such as a compliment with no ulterior motive attached. Doing so creates a listener! Watch your tone, though; teenagers have radar that detects patronizing tones like no other!
Part 2: “I think you may have been feeling a bit frustrated and upset lately…” This is a simple statement based on a logical yet subjective conclusion, devoid of any judgement, with a hint of validation (for the kid’s feelings). It says “I’ve been paying attention,” and “You’ve got my attention,” and “I understand what you feel.” The key words are “think” and “may”, which help the teen understand that you are open to any clarification.
Part 3: “I just want you to know there is no issue too small or too big that you can’t ask me or tell me about.” This statement offers hope, support, and security.
Why is the offer of hope and security important? In Sam’s case, her behavior toward her little brother, earlier in the weekend, was not the problem. Her dad recognized that. Sam’s behavior, and what her father judged to be her overreacting to recent events, was just a warning sign. Her dad noticed she was angry and upset lately (maybe more than usual). He appreciated it for what it is: a symptom. Her dad didn’t focus on the symptom and drag their conversation through a “she-said-he-said” format. Instead, he wanted to get to the root of the problem: Why is Sam feeling so angry lately? Well, in fact, most feelings of depression or anger in teenagers may be rooted in fear. So, offering hope, security and support would be a very essential part of the solution in this case. The extra “I Love You” just seals the deal!
The important thing is…the child feels heard!
Unfortunately, when parents are anxious, concerned, or upset, they may feel pressured to get some answers as quickly as possible, and many get into interrogation mode! Children don’t respond well to that. They clam up (shut down) and shut out their parents because they feel defensive and judged by them.
I hope that by following these suggestions, you can help your kid feel more heard and validated, so you can open the lines of communication with your child.
This is an excerpt from my book: “Create Happy Kids”
Dr. Sherkat is a parent strategist who is available to do Parent Education Workshops, either Private or PTA Sponsored Classes.
Contact her at 425-772-6698.