Does Your Teen Really Listen? Do You?

Imagine trying to communicate with someone who doesn’t understand English. Would you repeatedly shout the information, assuming the person will eventually figure out what you’re trying to say? Of course, the answer is “no.” Instead, you’d ask someone to translate, consult a foreign language dictionary, or take time to learn the language. This same problem arises in families with teenagers.

The language barrier between you and your teenager can be as difficult to bridge as a gaping ravine. While you recognize adolescence as one of the big mysteries of the universe, you still somehow believe that, because you’re speaking “plain English,” your teen should understand—and obey. So you lob big chunks of instructions or advice across the void, hoping the teen will somehow receive, understand, and follow your advice. When your teen does the exact opposite, you grumble, “He (or she) just doesn’t listen to me!”

The gap between parents and teenagers is seldom solely the fault of the teen. If your teen won’t listen, chances are you’re spending too much time slinging words and not enough time receiving them. Instead of shouting across the void, try closing the gap. Build a bridge so you can get up close and personal, and really communicate. Learn what—and who—young people listen to, and the mystery will begin to fade.

If you’re like most parents, you’re not sure how that gap between you and your kid got there in the first place. Ever since your teen was a toddler, you’ve warned him about hot stoves, crossing the street, and running with scissors. A stern “No!” was all it took to steer your child away from danger. Now, the hot stoves have become drugs, sex, and violence. Your first instinct is to just say “No!” even louder. Unfortunately, toddler time-outs and “Simon-says” won’t work anymore.

Teens are learning independence, and they’re making decisions on their own. It’s possible that while you were giving one-sided lectures, your teen was looking for two-sided conversations. If your teen no longer listens, maybe it’s time to change your tone. Stop throwing advice or commands across that gap and start building a bridge.

If you think communication is “talking,” that’s where you need to start. A big part of effective communication is simply listening and being available. Take stock of things you say that change your “benign snippets of conversation” into something your teen considers a direct assault.

Lectures and interrogations often make teens feel inferior, then rebellious. “We need to have a talk,” and “Because I said so” are condescending statements teens rightly resent. Before you ask, “What in the world were you thinking?,” stop for a minute and try figuring out what in the world he was thinking. Viewed from the teen’s perspective, an action that shocked you may not seem quite so outrageous.

Slang can’t be blamed for making the teen/parent language barrier so vast. The problem isn’t caused by nouns, adjectives and verbs; it’s a matter of values and motivations. At the same time, it takes a keen mind and ear to interpret what you’re hearing.

Ask your teen why he makes certain decisions, and he may simply say, “Because it’s cool.”

Translation: “Despite what you think, I’m actually quite rational. Right now, the values that motivate my decisions are different than yours. Things like fitting in, popularity, and new experiences are more important to me now than they’ll be five years later. All teens feel that way. The things I do now may seem stupid to you, but they make perfect sense to me.”

Ask why your teen listens to his friends’ advice. You’ll hear, “Because they’re cool.”

Translation: “I listen to advice that helps me get what I want—not what you want me to want. I listen to people I trust, and who are experts in things I think are important. Just because you’re older and live under the same roof doesn’t automatically make you an expert. You need to prove yourself and show me some respect. You act a certain way with your friends and your boss. Why can’t you act the same way with me?”

Honestly listen to your teen and you’ll begin to figure out how younger minds work. Be the kind of person a teenager listens to. Seek the kind of credibility in your teenager’s eyes that will allow you to influence his decisions. That doesn’t mean you need to pierce your tongue or ride a motorcycle. It may seem unlikely, but parents can be cool, too.

Take things one step at a time. Your bridge needn’t start as a massive exchange of emotions and thoughts. Have conversations where there isn’t a planned objective. Don’t always have point you’re trying to get across. If you can’t comfortably be in a room together unless the TV or radio is on, fix that first. Work on a project side by side. Learn to laugh together before dealing with more serious topics. Learn how your teen thinks and what interests him. Tell him how you feel about things—even things that scare you. Be blunt. Be honest. Most important: be available.

Building a bridge across the parent/teen gap isn’t a quick fix. You can’t accomplish it in three steps, and you won’t necessarily see results in 14 days. There’s no money-back guarantee. When all is said and done, some bridges will be built of strong granite, while others will resemble a rickety Boy Scout rope bridge.

Once your bridge is built, however, it will no longer be necessary to push large chunks of advice across. A properly constructed bridge means continuing, two-way communication. That’s the real key to understanding—and being understood.

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