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Listening to Your Children and Adolescents

Updated: Oct 26, 2021

Woman with her young child smiling
Good communication can strengthen the bond with your child

Many times when I see children, adolescents, and families, there is a lot of difficulty in communicating because of people’s inability to listen to each other. Listening is more than just not talking while the other person talks.

Listening is the Mainstay of Communication

That probably sounds obvious, but there is so much more to listening then the absence of interrupting someone. When you listen, there is an intention. The intention could be to gather information to refute in an argument, to find out the other person’s perspective, or to enter the world of the other and understand their unique perspective.

The latter intention, as difficult as it can be sometimes, is probably the most successful and healthy intention to hold when you’re communicating with someone or listening to them. You’d be surprised how often children would love to be able to tell their parents about significant events in their lives, or even every day occurrences like which friendships are doing well, what they find interesting, and about potential boyfriends and girlfriends would like to pursue.

boy piggybacking on dad's back
How well do you listen to your children?

However, sometimes kids tell me they don't think that the adult will take them seriously, or that they will get in trouble for what they say. Therefore, they keep it secret and it often causes emotional upset. It’s hard for anyone, however all they are, to hold the secret for a long time, especially if it’s something that really matters. The art of listening requires patience, emotional regulation on the listeners part, and skill to give people the space to say what’s on their heart.

How to Listen to Your Child/Teen

Let's focus now on how to listen to children. I thought I would start with children and parents, since that is often one of the more difficult relationships to navigate through the child’s formative years. Listening does not necessarily mean that you give a child whatever he or she wants. It does, however mean that you respect the person enough to give them a chance to say their piece without interrupting, charging, or laying down the law immediately.

boy and his mother laughing together in bed
Make time to listen to your kiddos!

To begin, it seems important to know how you related to your own parents. How did they treat you, and did they listen to you? If they did, then you are fortunate and have a good template to use with your own children; perhaps you only need to modify it to fit your child’s age, the modern times, and what you believe is the best way to communicate with your child. If you came from an abusive childhood, where your needs and desires were not heard, it will be more challenging to know how to relate to your own child. Of course, there are also temperamental factors that enter into whether you can communicate easily with her child.

Some Kids Make it Easier Than Others to Listen

Some kids are somewhat docile and easy going, and they take direction better than more willful, strong headed children. However, this does not mean that you should not try to communicate with your more spirited child. It just means that it will be a little more challenging. If the way your parents treated you is getting in the way of having a good relationship with your own children, it is probably a good idea to get some counseling to help clear out destructive patterns that you learn from your own parents.

Let me start with some obvious, but basic premises for communicating with your child.

  • First, recognize that your child is unique individual human being. This means that your child is a separate human being from you. He or she has preferences, personality traits, and needs and desires that you may not be able to relate to. His or her developmental stage and needs are important factors in how you talk to them and what you say.

  • Your child is also living in a different time and in a different culture from how you were raised. That doesn’t mean that good basic rules that you learned from your own childhood need to be discarded, but it does mean that you should take this into consideration when listening to the child’s needs or desires.

Young people of Asian descent talking to each other
Meet your adolescent where he or she is, not where you think they should be

  • Second, your child is just as important as any other human being on the face of the planet. This may seem ridiculously plain to you, but a lot of times children are treated as low they are not important and their opinions don’t matter. True, we cannot indulge every whim and strange idea they may come up with that we also need to listen seriously to what they had to say.

  • Even within a request or statement that seems far-fetched or outlandish, there is important information to be gleaned about their psychology. We need to consider this when hearing what they had to say.

  • Third, just because we are listening to the child does not mean that they will get their way or that we will lose authority or control as parents. They may be frustrated that you did not grant their request or permit them to do something that would not be right for them, but you can at least afford them the respect of listening without shutting them down.

  • Fourth, just as we don’t want them to disrespect us, we need to keep our language and habits respectful and considerate of their humanity. Insults, sarcasm and name-calling do not engender respect between parent and child, no matter who is speaking.