Communication with Teens: Is Anyone Listening?
Dr. Greg Allen, Ph.D., LMFT
When an adult is asked about communicating with teens; they might say that teens don’t listen to adults. Many parents report that their teens have tuned them out or at least don’t value their opinion anymore. It’s true that many teens don’t listen to their parents as much as when they were children. Parents report that teens talk with their friends more than with their parents.
Why is that? Do parents views matter to teens? Have teens tuned out their parents? Have parents given up trying to reach their teens or share their opinions? Do teens listen to parents? Are teens becoming independent and therefore don’t need to listen to their parents anymore?
Teens across the country report that they would like to communicate with their parents more but don’t because their parents are either too busy, stressed or won’t listen.
My experience confirms that there is a vast divide between teens and their parents. Teens do communicate more with their friends/peers than with the adults in their life. However, it seems that adults and teens have tuned each other out.
As we know real communication is to be a two-way process. Healthy communication involves listening as well as speaking. When is comes to communication between teens and parents, there doesn’t seem to be much listening happening.
Many parents are strongly focused on what they want to say, what their viewpoint is and how to express it so that it is heard. Many adults want to be listened to but in this desire have lost the art of two-way communicating. Specifically, for a variety of reasons there isn’t real listening going on to what a teen may be saying or trying to say. Many teens report that they gave up trying to talk with their parents years ago.
Many parents feel there isn’t much value in their teens viewpoints or opinions. What this lack of listening communicates to teens is that their opinions don’t matter. A teen may also conclude that their parent isn’t someone they can talk with because their parents can’t handle teens being honest with them. Parents often react with anxiety and fear as they attempt to hear what their teen is speaking about. They don’t want to talk with someone who is going to ‘freak out’ when they speak with them. This results in teens not sharing their personal life, desires, decisions, struggles, challenges or plans. The result is also that parents have given up trying to connect with their son and/or daughter.
This relational divide increases the lack of fulfillment for both parent and teen as they live in separate worlds. While it is true that adults and teens are in different stages in life, the divide that often exists is not helpful, healthy or necessary.
My recommendation is for parents to begin to learn to connect with their teen in a personal way by practicing the art of listening. Years I realized that what was more important was how my teen was thinking and feeling instead of my opinion being expressed again. I began to change my approach to being one of a listener seeking to understand the challenges, choices and decisions that my teens were experiencing. Parents need to be a resource for teens that is supportive and seeks to build up the emerging young adult.
We all need to be able to hear ourselves think, brainstorm ideas, options and dig deeper into the meaning and consequences of decisions. A parent can be a valuable resource if they seek to allow a teen to go through this process of examination and discovery about everyday life experiences.
Parents can learn to keep their ‘alarmed’ reactions within themself and not react fearfully during an interaction with their teen. Parents can later alone or with their co-parent, sort through their fears and worries. They can also strategize about their responses.
Learning to be a listener will allow the wisdom and value of the adult to be a positive motivator for the personal growth of their teen.
Tips for communicating with teens:
1. Listen to what is being said; that is, try to understand the teenager’s feelings and where she is coming from. Rather than thinking about arguments or retaliations, listen to her/him.
2. Stop what you are doing and look at the teenager. Listen when they speak to you. Be sure that you are giving them the proper attention and that they are not talking to a newspaper or to your back.
3. Be sure most of your communication is positive, not negative. Don’t dwell on mistakes, failures, misbehaviors, or something they forgot to do. Give them positive communication and talk about their successes, accomplishments, interests, and appropriate behavior.
4. Talk to them about their interests (e.g., music, sports, computers, dance-team practice, cars, and motorcycles). Talk to them just to talk and to have positive verbal interaction.
5. Avoid talking too much – giving long or too-detailed explanations, repeating lectures, questioning excessively, or using other forms of communication that will result in the teenager turning a deaf ear to you.
6. Try to understand the teen’s feelings. You do not have to agree or disagree with him; just make him aware that you understand how he feels. Do not try to explain away his emotions. There are times when you do not have to fix things or make the youngster feel better.
7. Do not overreact to what is said. Remember, sometimes teenagers say things that are designed to get a reaction from their parents. In addition, do not say “no” too fast. Sometimes it is better to think about the request and give a response later. In other words, think before you open your mouth.
8. Try to create situations in which communication can occur (driving your teen to the doctor’s appointment, having the teenager help you with household tasks). You have to be physically close to the teenager for communication to occur. A television, computer or video games in the teen’s room can be an additional barrier to family communication. Whenever possible, the parent should try to do things with the teenager, rather than separately. Although the teen may not frequently accept them, provide opportunities for him/her to do things with you.
9. Try to avoid power struggles, confrontation, and arguing matches. Your goal should be to have the communication move toward a compromise situation, rather than a battle. When appropriate, involve the teenager in decision making and setting consequences for his or her behavior.
Dr. Greg Allen, LMFT is a therapist practicing in Palos Verdes Estates and Hermosa Beach (drgregallen.com). He is also the founder and director of Freedom4U (freedomcommunity.com). He may be reached at