Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent, you play an essential role in your child’s/teen’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child/teen relationship while building essential listening skills in your child/teen.
Your child’s/teen’s success depends upon their ability to listen and understand what you and others are telling them. Listening skills can support your child’s/teen’s ability to engage in healthy relationships with friends, relatives, and teachers and aid their focus and ability to learn at school. For example, we know, children/teens must listen to their teacher if they are to follow directions and successfully navigate expectations at school. Not surprisingly, better listening skills are associated with school success.
Children/Teens ages 11-14 are in the process of carving out their identity, and their measuring stick is often their peers’ opinions and approval. They come to better understand themselves through interactions with you, their teachers, and their peers. This is a critical time to teach and practice listening skills.
Yet, we all face challenges when it comes to listening. The average person listens with only 25% efficiency.1 With screens occupying several hours of our children’s/teens’ day, their opportunity to interact with others in person and exercise listening skills may be less than with previous generations. And, listening requires the use of other important skills like impulse control, focused attention, empathy, and nonverbal and verbal communication.
The key to many parenting challenges, like building essential listening skills, is finding ways to communicate so that both your needs and your child’s/teen’s needs are met. The steps below include specific and practical strategies to prepare you.
Whether it’s your eleven-year-old continuing to play video games when you’ve told them screen time is over (for the third time) or your fourteen-year-old daydreaming during the teacher’s instructions and not knowing how to do their homework, establishing regular ways to practice listening skills can prepare your child/teen for family, school, and life success.
Today, in the short term, teaching skills to listen can create:
- greater opportunities for connection, cooperation, and enjoyment;
- trust in each other that we have the competence to manage our relationships and responsibilities; and
- a sense of wellbeing and motivation to engage.
Tomorrow, in the long term, working on effective listening skills with your child/teen:
- develops a sense of safety, security, and a belief in self;
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making; and
- deepens family trust and intimacy.
Five Steps for Building Listening Skills
This five-step process helps you and your child/teen cultivate effective listening skills, a critical life skill. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are best done when you and your child/teen are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child/Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child/teen thinking about listening skills by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your child’s/teen’s thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to how they feel when they struggle with focus and listening so that you can address them. In gaining input, your child/teen:
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve designed themselves (and with that sense of ownership also comes a greater responsibility for solving their own problems);
- has more motivation to work together and cooperate because of their sense of ownership;
- will be working in collaboration with you to deepen your ability to communicate with one another;
- will grow their self-control (adding to their ability to focus attention) as well as, empathy and problem-solving skills.
Consider what challenges your child/teen in their ability to listen effectively. Your active listening in this moment will begin modeling the very kinds of skills you are attempting to build. You might start by asking:
- “What does it mean to truly listen to someone?”
- “How do you know that the person is truly listening to you?”
- “How do you show that you are truly listening?”
- “What are ways to convey that you are listening to someone?”
- “How do you feel when someone doesn’t listen to you?”
During a family meal, explore the question: “What does it take to listen well?” Allow each family member to respond. Model listening by allowing each person to complete their thoughts without interruption or judgment.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
As parents, it’s easy to forget that children/teens are learning how to be in healthy relationships, which includes learning how to listen effectively. Skill building takes intentional practice. Learning about developmental milestones can help a parent better understand what their child/teen is going through. Here are some examples:
- Eleven-year-olds are trying to assert their independence. As they grow their social awareness (being able to better see from another person’s perspective), they may desire a new level of skill in listening for thoughts and feelings.
- Twelve-year-olds are gaining confidence and leadership abilities. Listening to peers becomes more important. Disturbing news and social issues could preoccupy them more than ever with their growing social awareness.
- Thirteen-year-olds can be highly sensitive to comments from you, teachers, and peers as they work to define their independent identity. This can challenge their listening skills as worries can cloud their focus on what you are trying to communicate.
- Fourteen-year-olds may act invincible and like they know it “all.” Despite this, they still look to adults to set boundaries, negotiate rules, and listen to their needs. Friends will be highly important in their lives, and they may spend lots of time communicating through texts, gaming, and messaging.
- Fifteen-year-olds may feel sensitive to criticism and be preoccupied with peer interactions. Because of this, they may come to you for support and a listening ear but may also be conflicted as they attempt to assert their independence.
- Sixteen-year-olds may feel more confident in themselves. They may have new important goals outside of school (jobs, driving, dating), and along with them – worries. Your focused listening will matter greatly as they consider new emerging adult roles.
- Seventeen-year-olds may become highly focused on their academic and life goals as they consider the fact that their graduation is coming up and they’ll need to face life after high school. This can be a high stress time. Teens may come to you with great emotional needs and your ability to listen can offer critical support.
- Eighteen and nineteen-year-olds are now considered emerging adults. Whether entering college, living on their own, or beginning a job, their lives will be changing in major ways. This is a time for redefining your adult-to-adult relationship. Listening closely to their needs without judgment and offering your assurance that they can do it on their own are some of your most important roles.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child/teen up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- Model listening while interacting with your child/teen. Modeling listening skills can be one of the greatest teaching tools.
- Set a goal for yourself. Pick a time of day when you know that you and your child/teen will be talking. Then, notice your body language. Ask yourself: “How am I demonstrating that I’m listening? What am I doing that I want my child/teen to do?”
- Listen for thought and feeling. In addition to listening to the content of what your child/teen says, also see if you can identify the unspoken thought and feeling behind the content.
- Children/Teens still need their parent’s attention to thrive. So, why not build a sacred time into your routine when you are fully present to listen to what your child/teen has to tell you? Turn your phone off. Set a timer if you need.
As our children/teens get older, it can be challenging to entice them into meaningful conversations. “Fine” might be all you get in response to “How was your day?” So, turn down the car radio. Hang around them without your phone. Offer plenty of chances to listen when they are ready to talk.
- Learn listening strategies together by trying them out.
- Get curious. Don’t stop asking questions when you get one word answers. Your child/teen needs to know that you will relentlessly work to get information from them. It is important that your child/teen knows that they cannot just outwait you. So when you ask, “How was your day?” and your child/teen says “Fine”, don’t stop. Try, “Say more, what was fine about it?” or “What was difficult about today?” or “What went well?” or “Let’s start at the beginning,” or “What made you laugh today?” Don’t give up!
- Find opportunities to share. Model what it is like to share about your day. If your child/teen asks you how your day was, be sure to not respond with a superficial or one-word answer. Engage them about a conflict you had or a struggle you faced. See if they can help offer suggestions.
- Active listening. Try out active listening in which one person listens to fully understand what the speaker is saying and waits until the speaker is finished talking before responding. A response could be a simple “I get it.” Make eye contact and practice placing your full focus on the speaker
- Paraphrasing. Try out paraphrasing by echoing back to the speaker a summary of what they’ve said to check how accurate your listening is and also to confirm to the speaker that you have heard them. You might start, “I heard you say that…”
- Seeking clarification. Try out seeking clarification. Particularly if you are listening with the intent to learn something from the speaker, seeking clarification on details is important to make certain you understand. Practice seeking clarification by asking questions like, “What did you mean when you said you were upset at school? What happened?”
- Practice questioning and commenting with empathy. Instead of responding to a speaker with your own experiences, focus solely on the content of what has been communicated. For example, your child/teen might say, “Today Mrs. Smith started a new writing project. We get to write an essay on any topic we are interested in. I can’t wait.” Instead of responding with something like: “I remember when I was in school…,” which takes the focus away from your child/teen, you might say, “Sounds like you are excited about this project. That’s great! What thoughts have you had about what topic you are going to choose?” This empathetic pattern of speaking and listening requires practice. Your modeling will make a difference in your child’s/teen’s comfort with this style of communication.1
Step 3. Practice to Grow Listening Skills for Healthy Relationships
Your daily conversations can be opportunities for your child/teen to practice new skills if you seize those chances. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time they work hard to practice essential listening skills.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy – a child’s/teen’s sense that they can do a task or skill successfully. This leads to confidence. It will also help them understand that mistakes and failures are part of learning.
- Initially, your child/teen may need active support. Use “Show me…” statements and ask them to demonstrate listening. You could say, “Show me a few different ways you can convey that you are listening as we talk about our day.”
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like, “I notice how you listened fully to your sister and didn’t interrupt her. That’s so helpful to her.”
- There are a number of activities that require strong listening skills. Offer practice by engaging in these activities as a family. Some suggested games are:
- Riddles. Riddles are fun ways to support listening skills. Take turns asking each other riddles that require active listening as well as engaged conversation.
- Song lyrics/short clips. Take turns choosing a favorite song or short clip to listen to. As a family, discuss the lyrics or clip and what about the lyrics or clip really moved everyone.
- Twenty Questions. You probably remember playing some version of this game. It requires listening and deductive reasoning. One person thinks of something (an object, an animal, a person, etc.) and others ask yes/no questions to deduce what the person is thinking about; however, they only have 20 questions before they run out.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s/Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child/teen how to meet their listening challenges with skill and persistence and you are allowing them to practice. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, coaching, and, when appropriate, applying logical consequences. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child/teen fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
By providing support, you are reinforcing their ability to be successful, helping them grow in their listening skills.
- Ask key questions to actively see how your child’s/teen’s listening is going. You can ask questions like:
- “I notice that you are having a hard time listening to me as I tell you about my day. What do you think is going on for you?”
- “What are things you might need to do or say to yourself to help yourself listen?”
- Learn about your child’s/teen’s development. Each new age will present differing social challenges. So, becoming informed regularly about what developmental milestones your child/teen is working toward will offer you empathy and patience.
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for new and different listening strategies can offer additional support and motivation for your child/teen when tough issues arise.
- Engage in further practice. Create more opportunities to practice when all is calm.
- Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequences should come soon after the negative behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a consequence is about supporting the learning process. First, get your own emotions in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your emotions are in check you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior. Second, invite your child/teen into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2 for listening. Third, if you feel that your child/teen is not holding up their end of the bargain (unless it is a matter of them not knowing how), then apply a logical consequence as a teachable moment.
When children/teens do not listen, give them another chance. We all lose our focus sometimes. Seek clarification on what they heard and did not hear, and then review what you said again to help them refocus their attention.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
Though it is easy to forget, your attention is still your child’s/teen’s sweetest reward. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness and business of getting tasks accomplished in family life. But, if your child/teen is working hard to practice their listening skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. After all, your recognition can go a long way to promoting more of the same positive behaviors and expanding your child’s/teen’s sense of competence and responsibility. You can add to their motivation to work hard with the following actions.
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When your child/teen is listening to their sister’s long-winded story, for example, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed: “I noticed you not only listened to your sister, you conveyed to her what you understood about what she said. I know that makes her feel cared about. That’s so important.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments – like no interruptions – in order to recognize effort. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child/teen is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, if your child/teen makes up for ignoring you by apologizing sincerely, recognize that effort. Include hugs, high fives, and fist bumps in your repertoire of ways to appreciate one another.
Avoid gifts or other physical rewards for performance. These actually have a de-motivating effect on children/teens. When you remove the extra screen time or money, for example, have they internalized the skills and also the sense of responsibility for performing them? There’s less of a chance if you’ve offered a “bribe.” Focus on your attention as the best reward.
Be specific. “Good job” seems to not carry much meaning. However, a specific compliment about a pointed behavior – “You listened to your brother’s upset feelings, and I know it meant a lot to him!” – can promote more of the same.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child/teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children/teens to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.
Center for Health and Safety Culture. (2019). Listening. Ages 11-19. Retrieved from https://www.ParentingMontana.org.