The quest to feel valued can be long and arduous. There are many paths to take, some more helpful than others.
If there is a consistent theme among the majority of teenagers that I see in sessions it is the self-reported feeling that no one understands them, no one really listens to them, no one takes them seriously … in short, no one values them. Pre-teens and teenagers are at a prickly stage in their life. The logic center of their brain has not fully developed yet and they are cursed (blessed) with the belief that they can do anything and that they are to some degree invincible.
Teens are a weird mix of independent and needy. In response, parents tend to pull back in areas that they shouldn’t and clamp down on areas that they should.
The important thing is you don’t have to agree with the pre-teen or teenager you are conversing with. You don’t even have to understand them. You can say: “I still don’t understand why K-pop is so popular,” but don’t say that to a teen unless you are prepared to listen for an extended amount of time about how K-pop is “the best thing ever.”
Reflective listening is not about agreeing or understanding; it is appropriately named enough just about listening.
To actively listen you must do the following steps:
1. Put down your distractions. Put down your phone, turn off or mute the TV. You can still multi-task. Cooking or driving (as long as you can do so safely) are great activities to do with the youth you’re talking with.
2. Make frequent but not overbearing eye contact. (Note: This obviously changes if it does not fit your respective culture regarding eye contact.) You want to show them you are listening but not have a staring contest. This is why driving can be helpful. If the youth does not feel the pressure to make eye contact, that can actually make them feel more comfortable to open up. Just don’t try this while the youth is driving, of course.
3. This is the tricky one, listen. This sounds way easier than it is. Let the youth talk about whatever they want to talk about, and you then affirm what they said even if you don’t agree with it.
Here’s an example: Let’s say the youth wants to talk about sports and you couldn’t care less about the sport they are talking about. A typical conversation would be the youth talking and the adult responding with “cool” or “that’s fun” or something similar. While this may seem affirming, these are actually dismissive. Instead, the reflective listening approach would be hearing the words but also looking at the energy the youth is putting out. Are they animated, are they smiling, do they appear excited? So you could respond with: “It seems like you are really excited about soccer.” This shows that not only have you heard their words but you are paying attention to how they may feel also. Don’t worry about getting the emotion wrong. If you get it right you can expect a “yes” and they will talk more. If you get it wrong you can most likely expect a “no” and then clarification on what they said. Or they will give you the emotion they were feeling. You can then just repeat what they said back. Example:
Parent: “You seem excited about soccer”
Youth: “No, I am really nervous.”
Parent: “You’re really nervous about soccer.”
Then this encourages the youth to say “yes” and then explain more. You could then follow that up with: “What about soccer makes you nervous?” … which brings us to Step No. 4 …
4. Ask questions about what they said. Although it is important to avoid “why” questions because they can come across as judgmental and immediately trigger a defensive teenager. “Why do you like that music?” vs. “What about that music do you like?”
5. Arguably the most important, be genuine and calm. If you are sarcastic or sound bored or distracted while doing these techniques, no amount of eye contact and reflection is going to send the message that you are willing and ready to listen.
Once you master this technique for fun conversations (well, I don’t know how fun conversations about soccer are for you) you can then apply it to deeper, more emotionally vulnerable conversations.
And if you, your teen, or your family need help, Your Story Matters Therapy Group is here to answer questions or to provide professional services. We are still offering telehealth sessions in addition to in-person therapy at both of our Omaha locations and our Council Bluffs offices. Contact us today.