She sat with her arms crossed, seething. Repeating her feelings to me as if I hadn’t heard her the first time. She was getting madder and madder. At the same time, my frustration was growing, too. I tried to tell her, “Honey, here’s what you need to do,” but she didn’t seem to hear me. Why wouldn’t she listen?
She wouldn’t listen because I was focused on fixing the problem when I should have focused on helping her calm down and inviting her into a discussion. If you want to work on how to talk so your teens will listen, here are 5 steps.
Step 1: Ease their minds.
When we get very upset, we go into fight or flight mode. When our teens do this, it actually prevents them from being physically able to listen. A recent episode of the Don’t Mom Alone podcast called “Raising Worry-Free Girls with Sissy Goff” explains several practical techniques to help kids calm down. One way to do it is to pause the conversation and have the child draw a square slowly on his or her leg with a finger. With each new side of the square, have the child alternate inhaling and exhaling. Techniques that slow breathing help redirect blood flow to the prefrontal cortex. This allows rational thought to resume in the brain.
Step 2: Hear them.
We want to jump into sharing our wisdom, but it is important first that our teens feel “heard.” This step is critical, and it can take time. But oftentimes, our teens repeat themselves because 1) They are trying to express the depth of their emotion, or 2) They don’t feel we are truly listening. So put aside any distractions, make eye contact, and listen without interruption. If there is a chance for you to talk, repeat back what they have said; this confirms that you have been listening.
Step 3: Empathize.
Empathizing validates your teens’ feelings. “I can see why you would feel that way,” is a good way to begin. “Wow, that was tough,” or something to that effect, helps them process the feelings and get beyond them.
Step 4: Extend an invitation.
Take a moment to invite them into a conversation where you will share your perspective and wisdom on the topic at hand. Our role when our kids were little was to freely tell them what to do—and rightly so. It’s how we keep them alive and well (“Don’t cross the busy street!”). But gradually, as they grow up, our role is increasingly that of a coach, a guide, or a mentor. Teens’ ears are most open to our ideas when they have decided they want to hear them. So tell them you have ideas and ask if they’re interested in hearing them.
Step 5: Encourage, then exit.
If your teen says yes, you’ve been given the green light to share your advice. But there’s also a good chance your teen will say no. Don’t appear offended or angry. Encourage them by expressing your confidence in their ability to come to a solid decision—something like, “You’re a smart young lady and I know you’ll figure this out.” Then give a quick hug or pat on the back. Lastly, before you exit, let your teens know you’re available to talk if they change their minds.
Being accessible to our teens when they don’t yet know they need us reminds me of a passage I recently read in my Bible. In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” I believe God waits patiently for me to approach whenever I’m ready—and that’s how we should wait for our teens.
Which of these steps is hardest for you? Do you have ideas on how to talk so teens will listen?