The skill of listening to teens


Listening to teens is crucial in building open and trusting relationships, as well as setting young folks up for success. It is a core component of building mutual respect between you and your teen, which in turn leads to more physically and mentally-healthy teens.

Using good listening skills helps kids feel heard and encourages them to share their experiences and essentially, keep the conversation going. Teens commonly feel that no one understands or listens to them. There are several reasons for this, and many can be attributed to poor communication between kids and adults. Though adults are usually well-intentioned, there are things that they often do (or don’t do) in conversations that prevent teens from feeling heard. When talking with teens, try to keep these points in mind:

  1. Be patient
    Kids may not be ready to spill their guts the first time you sit down to talk. Let them go at their own pace, and don’t press them on issues they might not be ready to discuss. They are more likely to open up if they have the freedom to share when they are ready.
  2. Watch your body language
    Nonverbal communication is often even more powerful than spoken words. Check your posture, facial expressions and gestures for the message they give. Are you focused on the conversation at hand or are you distracted? Be sure to give a teen your full attention, or they will feel that their issue is unimportant to you. Make eye contact and use cues like nodding to keep the conversation moving along.
  3. Use reflective listening skills
    Periodically paraphrase what you hear and offer it back to the teen to check for understanding. Summarize both the content and the feelings underneath. Example: “It sounds like you’re saying you’ve been really mad at your mom lately because she keeps disappointing you” or “You feel frustrated because your grades aren’t where you would like them to be.” If the teen says, “Yes.” and keeps talking, you know you’re on the right track. Conversely, they may say “No, that’s not it,” and restate the issue in a different way. Either way, communication is enhanced.
  4. Don’t give advice
    This is often very challenging for adults who work with kids. The instinct to fix is so strong that it can be tough to sit back and bite your tongue when the solution seems so obvious. But chiming in too quickly with suggestions is problematic for several reasons. First, you want to make sure that the teen has had the chance to fully express and explore the issue first. Otherwise, they will feel rushed and unimportant. Offering a quick solution can also have the unintended effect of minimizing dismissing the problem. In addition, the ultimate goal is for the teen to come up with his or her own solutions.
  5. Help teach problem-solving
    Start with some questions: “What have you already tried to solve this problem? What have you done to solve similar problems in the past?” The answers will give you a starting point from which to start brainstorming new or adjusted ideas. Teach kids a problem-solving model which helps them evaluate possibilities and outcomes.

Using these techniques to pace and focus your conversation around the teen’s needs will help you be a better listener, develop trust, and keep the conversation flowing.

Source: 9th Annual Teen Pregnancy Prevention Conference, Pre-Conference Material, April 30 and May 1, 2012, Birmingham, AL.

About Between Us

Between Us is a grant-funded program from the Minnesota Department of Health that creates access to confidential reproductive healthcare for youth and young adults who receive their care at Hennepin Healthcare. Teens have the right to confidentiality for certain kinds of care under Minnesota’s Minor Consent Law. Between Us works to transform primary care into a more teen-friendly environment, welcoming teens and their parents, while also providing confidential care when needed.

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