As a personal development trainer, many of the tweens and teens I ‘talk’ to tell me that no one is listening. I find them desperate to talk, to off load and to express themselves but that is because I am neither their parent or their teacher. I am a neutral person, someone not related to home or school. I have become very privileged to be the only adult to hear some very personal life experiences of some wonderful kids. They come to me sad, angry, hostile, fed up or in the middle of some teenage angst or drama, or a very real family or personal life experience that they need support to cope with.
What does real listening look like? I have learnt through the years that there are four parts to every teenager told story and there is a definite skill involved in getting to the final (and real) part. It takes time, commitment and a lot of deep care from a very calm, present adult. This adult needs to offer a safe, non-threatening place free from blame, shame, criticism and judgement to reach the final frontier – the undefended, raw and honest truthful part of a story!
These are my thoughts on how to really listen to a tween/teenager. You have to settle in and be up for all four parts.
It’s like a tree. The teen is sitting in the top of the tree so far away you can barely hear them, and at such a height you could never climb up there – and they know it! From up there they feel safe enough. If you want them to climb down, to the point where they are curled up under the tree beside you telling all, then you have to learn the real art of listening!
Part One - Heavily defended!
This is when they KNOW they have done something ‘wrong’, risky – done something that you didn’t want them to! They have been ‘caught’ and they are at the point where they are wanting to protect themselves from the punishment. The ultimate has happened, they made their mistake, but history has taught them that they will have to ‘pay’ for their crime and they are wanting to avoid that at all cost. They go into heavy defence mode. A parent or teacher’s experience of them in this mode is: lippy, snarly, rude, cheeky, defiant! Most parents and teachers fall at this first hurdle. They cannot handle this lack of respect, and they cave quickly, taking the bait and they go right into combat mode themselves.
“Don’t you dare speak to me like that!”
“Just own up to what you have done and stop trying to blame others”
The cycle begins. You have fallen for the classic teenage trick, they have managed to not share with you what ‘really happened’, the focus is most likely now on ‘how’ they are talking to you rather than ‘what they are saying’. This is how the truth stays well guarded!
Instead, to invite your teen to climb down from the top of the tree to the branch below, try offering your concern, compassion, empathy and understanding. Say as little as you can, but see the child in protection mode, and offer a soft place to land. Validate their feelings, don’t focus on ‘what’ they are saying, this is only a cover for their feelings. Anger is a feeling. “I hate you” are words. See your child as angry, and work very hard to keep yourself calm and not take this personally. Breathe, be mindful, stay calm and say what you see, “ I see you are really angry!” but stop there. Don’t offer to fix, mend or protect. Don’t provide a lecture or your words of wisdom. JUST LISTEN!
Part Two – Blame game, Shock value
If you have made it to part two, then you need to check in with yourself. What’s your body language like? Are you showing you are listening? Are you still, calm, and focused on your child? Are you Mindfully present, or has your attention wandered? Can you stay there! Present in this moment with your child?
Now you can ask questions to help you clarify you know ‘their version of the story’. Double check up on details, but don’t show you doubt any of these details. You are about to be tested again. Your child is still defended. They can’t trust you enough to share the ‘real’ story yet, so they will share a version that makes them look better than they should. They are heavily invested in your approval, and they are not ready to risk you thinking badly of them. They are still very nervous about the consequences of their crime, as the world has taught them that they will have to pay a price for their mistake, and they want to avoid this at all costs.
So as you seem to still be listening, they will go out on a limb. They will tell you a version of what happened. Most parents and teachers who have made it this far will fall at this hurdle. They begin to pick holes in the story. They get hung up on the details, they challenge the story, and the game is up. Your teenager has just been caught in a ‘tall story’ and they feel cornered, they can’t escape or get out and so they most likely will storm off at this point, or shut up shop all together.
During part two for sure it is ‘someone else’s fault’, in order to shut this conversation down really fast, a cunning and experienced teen will probably even lay full blame for their own actions at your feet! This is another fast way teens ensure you never get to the truth, the meat, or the juice! They know most adults can never handle being blamed, and they know most adults like to point out to teens that they MUST take responsibility for their own actions. Or worse, they are so used to blaming others that they themselves get stuck here, which in fact makes it all the more important for parents and teachers to help teens get off this point, and we do this by listening with skill!
But if you want to make it to the juice! If you are ready to master the art of really listening, don’t get hung up on the details. Ignore the disrespectful language. Go for the essence of what is being said. Again, listen with understanding, and realise that your child is still talking, and this in itself is a real gift. Allow them to play with their story, allow them the space to share their perspective and restrain yourself from correcting them. Even if you were there and saw the lot, still allow them their version of what happened. Take great care to listen to how your child is speaking, focus on their emotions and not the details of the story. Repeat the odd word they say, to show you are listening, say things such as “did he?”, “Oh man, really!”, but take care to watch your tone of voice, and facial and body expressions. Focus on yourself and again, ask any clarifying questions you have such as “do you mean the park by Sandra’s house or the other park?”
Part Three – A mix of fact and fantasy: twist the details, stretch the facts, hide the truth!
In my experience most parents and teens don’t make it this far. The dance between parent and teen is well established by now and most of us know how to push each other’s buttons. But, if you have made it this far, and your teen is swinging their legs from a low branch on the tree, they are almost within reach. You know you are at part three, because you start to hear some undefended truths popping in. You start to hear them feeling brave enough to really consider how ‘bad they are feeling’ but you most likely are not receiving an apology just yet!
As this stage it is essential for you to continue to make sure you are nodding, showing empathy and remaining fully focused. You need to offer words of encouragement that support your child to share their feelings/the story, in a way that lets them know you are thankful for their honesty and proud of the way they are sharing a vulnerable side to themselves. They need full encouragement to step down from the tree. Again stay away from details and focus on the theme of what has happened. What skills and harsh realities have they experienced. What is at the bottom of what’s going on? Peer pressure, low self-esteem, a need to fit in and belong is often at the root.
The story can get lost now as they play a dance with the facts and fantasy. The details can become twisted, the facts stretched and the truth can still be a little away from what happened. But this doesn’t matter as the more your teen is talking the more they are listening to themselves as well. They can be well experienced at seeing the story from another perspective and not their own, maybe from that of a friend, or even from your perspective. Reassure them and allow them this safe place to explore their feelings and dance with the story. Validate their feelings and remind them you are listening.
Part Four – The full story ‘warts and all’
Congratulations, you have made it. Your child has just climbed down out of the tree and is curled up either literally or figuratively in your lap. They feel safe enough to share the truth as they experienced it, or as their perspective allows them to see it and they feel safe enough to share their pain, humiliation, fears and disappointment in themselves. They may even apologise to you. This takes a lot of courage to do. They may be crying heavily and have stopped talking altogether now, but if they allow you, hold them. Most of us want a hug or some physical comfort if we are connecting with emotional pain. Some people really don’t. Respect your teens needs at this time. Focus more on what they need and not what you do, you may need to ask them what they need. Your gift is this honest and real pain filled moment. Your teen is learning and learning can be tough. They are connecting dots and the reality can be hard to come to terms with. Notice how hard it is for you to be this close to your child’s pain. Try and think about what you need when you are in pain, try and honor that.
It may be that you never need to go all ‘parent’ on your child. They may be doing that just fine themselves by this time. However, if you have made it all the way to part four, then you may well have earned your right (in the eyes of your teen), to let them know how you feel and how their story has impacted on you. You may be able to share how worried you were/are for their safety, or how your adult perspective may be able to see the events they have experienced far differently than they did. You may be offer to a different perspective.
Ensure you end such sessions with a reminder of how unconditional your love is for your teen, and how much trust and faith you have in them to honor themselves and look after themselves. Remind them you are always going to be there to guide. Remind them that they can always share anything with you. Tell them you love them, then move on with your day, until the next time you see the signs of needing to stop everything to be there for a very real connection ‘listening’ time with your teen.
Sit at the base of the tree, look up, and remember it was not so long ago you were the teen at the top of that tree. Was anyone there for you at the bottom until the very end, until part four? How different are we today from our teen really? Would this listening skill working in your other relationships too?