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Active Listening




Most parents agree that listening to their children is really important. Some experts in the field actually rate listening as the most important parenting skill of all. This is because it helps parents understand their teenagers and also helps resolve conflict, allowing them to carry out discipline effectively. Yet despite this, very few of us get any training in how to listen. Sometimes we can find it very hard, especially when we have strong views about what we want for our teenagers.


Active listening involves great effort. It involves stepping out of your own shoes into those of another person. It involves moving to see the world as they see it and to appreciate the feelings they have towards it. It is about going that extra distance to understand their point of view. When your child does something you strongly disagree with, a good indicator that you have understood empathetically is an appreciation that you might have committed the same error if you had been in their shoes or faced the same set of circumstances.

Most parents agree that listening to their children is really important. Some experts in the field actually rate listening as the most important parenting skill of all. This is because it helps parents understand their teenagers and also helps resolve conflict, allowing them to carry out discipline effectively. Yet despite this, very few of us get any training in how to listen. Sometimes we can find it very hard, especially when we have strong views about what we want for our teenagers.


Active listening involves great effort. It involves stepping out of your own shoes into those of another person. It involves moving to see the world as they see it and to appreciate the feelings they have towards it. It is about going that extra distance to understand their point of view. When your child does something you strongly disagree with, a good indicator that you have understood empathetically is an appreciation that you might have committed the same error if you had been in their shoes or faced the same set of circumstances.

So, How Do You Actively Listen?

Active listening is very different than the many other ways we might communicate with teenagers, such as giving advice, criticising or coaching (all useful skills at times, but not when we are attempting to understand a child’s feelings). Consider the following responses to a teenager:

Teenager (upset): James just turned the TV over to his channel.
Parent: Well, I’m sure it was his turn. (Arguing)
You shouldn’t be watching so much TV. (Criticising)
Why don’t you just do something else? (Advising)
Oh don’t worry, it’s not so bad. (Coaching)
Let me go and talk to James. (Rescuing)

Instead, active listening is something quite different. It involves the following skills:
»»Genuinely trying to understand.
»»Acknowledging what the other person is feeling.
»»Repeating what the other person has said, to check you have understood.
»»Giving full attention via your body language and eye contact.
»»Encouraging the other person to continue by nodding, being silent, repeating the last word they have said, asking gentle questions etc.

Now consider some alternative listening responses:

Teenager (upset): James just turned the TV over to his channel.
Parent: Sounds like you’re upset. Sit down and tell me what happened. (Picking up on feelings and encouraging child to say more)
I’m sorry, I know how much you like watching that programme. (Acknowledging feelings)

In the above examples the parent is validating the child’s feelings and attempting to see the problem from his point of view. Sometimes simply repeating what the child has said or nodding encouragingly can be sufficient to help the child feel listened to and to encourage him to express more.

It is important to remember that good listening can’t be reduced to a set of techniques. (If you do find yourself ‘parroting’ techniques, your teenager will soon point this out to you.) What counts is your genuine attempt to understand and appreciate the other’s point of view. You have listened effectively when the other person feels understood and that you haven’t judged them and are on their side.

Listening Changes You

When we listen empathetically to another person we open ourselves up to being influenced by them. We allow ourselves to be changed and transform the nature of our relationship with the other person. Consider the following example from a father:

I always considered myself to have a good relationship with my two teenage sons. I thought everyone enjoyed the joking and good-natured banter that would go on between us. That was until the younger of the two exploded one day over very little. I gave him what for, but I could see something was really bugging him so I went back to him and listened. He told me how he had always felt embarrassed and humiliated by the banter and the teasing. I began to hear how this had really damaged him. I can’t tell you how painful this was to hear, but it marked a pivotal point in our relationship. One year on, we have a much closer and adult relationship. I can’t tell you how glad I am I decided to listen that day.


Speaking Up

We’ve talked about the importance of actively listening to teenagers when they feel strongly about something. It is equally important that parents communicate their own feelings when they feel strongly about something. Teenagers need parents who don’t go along with everything they say. They need parents who are prepared to state their own views and to communicate their own values and opinions. However, how this is done makes a big difference.

Skilled communicators always listen first before speaking up with their own point of view. Often people get the order of this wrong: they attempt to get their point of view across before listening to the other person. This can lead to a lot of conflict. When we understand another person’s point of view and have acknowledged their feelings, they are far more likely to be open to listen to us in return. Expressing your views and concerns also requires skill and tact. Often parents fall into the traps of blaming, criticising or not acknowledging their own feelings. Speaking up respectfully involves:

1. Remaining calm and positive
2. Taking responsibility for your feelings by using an ‘I’ message. For example, ‘I feel upset’, rather than ‘you made me upset’.
3. Expressing your positive intentions and concerns, such as ‘I want you to be safe.’
4. Focusing on what you want to happen. For example saying, ‘I want you to tell me when you’re going to be late.’

Examples of Ineffective and Effective Speaking Up

Ineffective: What the hell do you think you are playing at staying out so late. You’ve really upset me. (Attacking and blaming ‘you’ message)
Effective: I worry about you going out late at night, especially when it is dark. You see, I want you to be safe.
(Expresses feelings as a positive concern using an ‘I’ message)
Ineffective: Is there something wrong with you that you don’t see this mess? You and your friends are so inconsiderate. (Sarcastic, blaming)
Effective: Listen, I like it when your friends come round, but I get frustrated if they leave the place in a mess. I’d really like it if they tidied up after themselves. (States positive first, acknowledges own feelings of frustration and then makes a clear reasonable request
Ineffective: You’re talking rubbish now, Of course it’s always wrong for teenagers at school to get involved in a sexual relationship. (Argumentative, attacking)
Effective: My own view is that teenagers at school are far too young to get involved in a sexual relationship. (Respectful offering of parent’s view and personal values)

Tips for the Future

1. Practice communicating well with your teenagers and other family members. When they feel strongly about something, make a real attempt to actively listen and to understand their point of view.
2. Practice speaking up respectfully to your teenager, offering your view in a calm and assertive way.


Article reproduced with permission from 'Parenting Teenagers' by Dr. John Sharry (Veritas, 2013)
Visit Dr. Sharry's website here!
Purchase the 'Parenting Teenagers' book here!