Want to Connect With Your Teen? Do This One Simple Thing

Apr 23, 2018 at 4:00 p.m. ET
Image: Getty Images/Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows

If you have a teen — or, lucky you, many teens — in your life, it might feel like you live on different planets. Truly connecting with the teen(s) in your life may sound like an impossible miracle on par with winning the lottery or curing your own cancer by drinking green juice. But I'm not talking about a magic imaginary cure-all here. In fact, the solution to that teen distance is so basic, so effective — and so, so hard to do. Are you ready?

To connect with your teen, you just have to listen to your teen. That’s it.

But when I say, "Listen," I mean listen. I don’t mean, “Stop talking.” I don’t mean, “Don’t interrupt.” I mean, “Reach into your brain, shut your thoughts down, and focus 100 percent on what the kid is saying.” 

More: 10 Life-Changing Podcasts for Teens

This meets a super-basic need for the human animal: to feel recognized. To feel valued. It’s the big-kid version of holding your baby and rubbing its back; it’s telling your teen, “You’re OK. You can just be. I’ve got you.” 

But rubbing a tiny back is easier than vibing with a teenager. I get it. I may be a "teen whisperer" (I went through mega-trauma in my own childhood and taught at-risk kids for 17 years, so I understand the struggle), but this deep style of listening did not come naturally to me. It wasn’t until I got certified as a youth life coach that I learned to shift from hearing through the filter of my own thoughts and values to listening to a kid’s own thoughts and values.

It felt like I was pulling teeth with my practice clients. “What am I doing wrong?” I asked my training professor. “I have my questions all mapped out; I see exactly what my client needs to do. How come everything feels stuck?” 

“Because that’s not coaching,” she said. “That’s controlling.” Ohhh.

As I watched her model the coaching practice, I realized that it's not the adult — the parent, teacher or coach — who helps the kid reach their goals; it’s the kid. They have their solutions. Our job as adult helpers is to be tuned-in enough to catch that solution when it falls out of their mouth.

"So," you may be asking, "I'm supposed to listen without having my own thoughts? Is that even possible?" It is, as it turns out — even for mere humans like us.

But "possible" doesn’t mean "easy," especially when a teen you love is going through the same pain you did at their age. One mom told me that her biggest parenting challenge is “when my kid’s struggles look like the struggles I had as a teen. I didn't know how to solve them then, and I still don't." Talk about emotional handcuffs. You as a parent feel a desperate need to help the kid work it out, both out of love and out of a drive to heal your own ancient scar tissue. But?what? You're supposed to magically know how to fix the issue now when you couldn't fix it all those years ago?

Guess what: It's not up to you to "solve" it.

It's not up to you to "suggest" anything. That strategy won't work.?That strategy never works. What does work is listening and asking questions and listening more as kids work it out for themselves.

Even when a parent agrees, in theory, that listening is the solution, it’s hard to put that into practice. A mom whose kid spent time in a high-quality residential treatment facility told me, “The program drilled [the importance of listening] into parents’ heads, so I get it — but I did have to learn it. It can be hard to grasp if you're used to just hearing words and staying quiet until it's your turn to make your point or tell your story.” 

This is made even more difficult by the fact that we grown-ups actually have learned a thing or two in our, um, old-ish age. And we want to share those lessons with teens in hopes of sparing them the struggle (or maybe in hopes of sharing our own brilliance).

But here’s the thing about adolescents: They were literally designed to think for themselves. To break away from their parents’ norms. To flex their budding autonomy. That’s what their brains are doing right at this very moment: splitting away from their parents. And to truly help them, we need to illustrate our respect for their thoughts and solutions.

Because this style of deep listening doesn’t come naturally, here are some concrete things you can do to tune out of your own thoughts and into your teen’s words.

  • Ask questions to better understand what the teen is experiencing and how they perceive the situation they’re describing.

  • Ask questions about what they want the reality of the situation to be as opposed to how it is currently.

  • Ask them what would need to happen to make that reality come to fruition.

  • Be super-duper quiet as they ponder that question — for long, uncomfortable minutes if need be.

  • Trust the teen's instincts in the matter.

  • Ask them what small, easy steps they could take toward making those changes happen.

  • Check in with them on the regular to see if they're doing those little steps and to find out what the next steps should be.

Notice how this has nothing to do with you, the adult? Like, nothing. It's all about the kid's perceptions; it's all about the kid taking action to solve their own problem. Your only job? Listen, trust and follow up.

So, we’ve got these two options: the old way and the new. Logically, which approach is more likely to draw a teen into communication? Us listening just long enough to catch the topic and then telling them to listen to what we think? Or us deeply listening and inviting them to share what they think?

Yeah, it's a no-brainer, which is exactly the point. To connect with your teen, simply put yourself into no-brain mode, tune into their brain and watch what happens.

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