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Parents: The Art of Listening to Your Teen


Hint: It’s Actually Technique, Not Art

If you have kids, you start getting parenting advice as soon as you tell family and friends a baby is on the way. The first advice probably comes from your parents, followed quickly by your close confidants. The advice escalates as the date nears. Soon enough well-meaning strangers offer tips when they see you in the grocery store or out for a walk in your neighborhood.

When your child arrives, the nature of the advice changes. It keeps changing as your child moves through their developmental stages. The wisest advice comes from people who tell you to listen to your child and pay close attention to all the ways they communicate with you. They communicate verbally, non-verbally, and behaviorally. You hear this advice about listening more and more as they approach adolescence, and when they finally arrive, you hear it all the time.

The phrase active listening figures prominently in all this advice. You understand that active listening means you’re not supposed to plan your response while you listen, or look for holes or inconsistencies in what you hear, but rather simply listen and offer support.

That makes sense – but there’s more to it than that.

There’s something else here to mention here, too. As adults, we all know we appreciate it when people listen to us. For the most part, we hate being ignored. And it’s easy to tell when someone is not really listening.

It’s annoying. It makes you want to stop talking and may prevent you from sharing anything with that person again.

But aside from not being annoying, what does active listening do for the person doing the talking?

Specifically, what does active listening on the part of parents do for teens?

Last month, a group of scientists conducted a study to find out.

Can Active Listening Boosts Wellbeing in Teens?

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, called “Parental Listening When Adolescents Self-Disclose: A Pre-Registered Experimental Study,” established an interesting experimental design. The goal of the study was to determine the effect of listening they classified as either good or moderate on teenagers. Good listening, they hypothesized, would impact teens in several ways. It would:

  1. Improve their sense of autonomy
  2. Increase feelings of connection to their parents
  3. Lead to more self-disclosure about both positive and negative things
  4. Enhance wellbeing

The design was interesting in that what they did was video several staged conversations between teenagers and parents. All conversations involved teens disclosing information about topics that could cause conflict. In one conversation, a teen admitted to their parents they’d hung out with friends the day before who were vaping tobacco, and when offered, they said yes, and tried it. In the second conversation, the teen declined the offer, and didn’t vape the tobacco. Researchers had the staged parents and teens record each conversation twice. In one conversation, the parents engaged in good active listening, while in the other, parents engaged in moderate active listening.

Next, they had another group of teens – a set of over 1,000 – watch the taped conversations and describe the effect the parents’ listening style would have had on them, had they been the teen doing the talking.

We think that’s an interesting experimental design, especially when we read the results and compare them to the advice we give in two articles we published recently:

How to Get Your Teen to Talk to You When You’ve Burned Bridges in the Past

Tips for Talking to Teens (With a Bonus List: Trending Teen Slang in 2021)

Have a look at those – then come back to read the study results, below.

The Impact of Good Listening on Teens

First, we need to explain why the research team thought good, active listening by parents would enhance something like overall wellbeing in their teenage children. The idea comes from what’s known as Self-determination theory (SDT), which proposes the following:

“People have basic psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence that can be satisfied through supportive interpersonal encounters.”

That’s a logical conclusion from both a common-sense perspective and a developmental perspective. A person’s self-esteem, self-efficacy, and sense of belonging – all components of the larger concept of wellbeing – are all boosted by positive encounters with others who see, understand, and appreciate who they are.

That’s the theoretical framework for the study.

Now let’s see if the researchers were right.

Here’s what they found.

The thousand + teens who reviewed the videos reported that, in comparison with moderate listening, good listening would have:

  • Increased their feelings of autonomy
  • Increased a sense of connectedness to parents
  • Enhanced their sense of wellbeing
  • Led to a higher rate of self-disclosure in subsequent conversations

In short, the researchers were right about everything they hypothesized.

Which begs the question: What is good listening?

As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, it’s not a secret art confined to a class of humans known as superparents. There are specific techniques you can use, which demystify the idea that good listening skills are something you need to be born with.

Here’s what it takes to be a good listener – according to the teens who watched the videos and the researchers who conducted the study.

Good Listening: Five Simple Techniques

  1. Maintain eye contact with your teen as much as possible
  2. Monitor and control body language:
    • Leaning toward your teen with your head inclined
    • Nod your head affirmatively, and often
  3. Use encouraging nonverbal responses:
    • Sounds such as ‘‘umm” and ‘‘ahh” show openness and receptivity, and will encourage your teen to keep talking.
  4. Use encouraging nonverbal responses, such as:
    • ‘‘Thank you for sharing that experience with me.”
    • “I assume it wasn’t easy for you.”
  5. Keep a non-judgmental physical and vocal demeanor
    • Resist the urge to lean back and cross your arms
    • Resist the urge to frown
    • Keep your voice calm
    • Make sure the words you choose are positive and supportive

When we read those things here in black and white, they seem easy. No problem. However, anyone who has a teenager knows that when teens start to talk and share things – a.k.a. self-disclose – they tell us things that make us want to do everything but what’s listed above. For instance, there are times when your teen talks and you unconsciously grimace, lean back, cock your head to the side, and say – with a touch of incredulity – something like:

“Now why on earth would you ever think THAT was a good idea?”

What we just described breaks every rule for good, active listening, all at once.

Can you honestly say you’ve never done exactly that?

You get a pass: we’re parents, and we have most definitely done that.

Here’s our promise: we’ll stop.

We encourage you to stop, too – if you do things like that while you talk to your teen.

The Little Things Add Up

The tips for good, active listening we offer above are a solid template for the listening side of effective communication. Parents, of course, are the head of the household. You make the rules, you determine the consequences – in the treatment world we say you define behavioral expectations and establish the outcomes when they are or are not met – and there are times when you need to be an unrepentant autocrat. But those times are few and far between, and almost always revolve around physical and emotional safety. Even when your rules are set in stone, the way you communicate them can determine how your teenager will respond to them.

That’s related to how you listen to your teen. The study we discuss in this article analyzes how teens respond to the way parents listen to their teens in situations that are consequential: the conversations were about whether the teen decides to vape tobacco. The results showed that good, active listening benefitted the teens emotionally and psychologically. Good listening also increased the likelihood of subsequent self-disclosure.

What we suggest is that you use these listening techniques all the time. Use them when your teen interrupts you at your desk to show you a ridiculous meme thread that takes you five minutes to read. Read it. Nod and smile. Laugh. When you’re done, say, thanks for sharing that with me. Do that with the memes, the stories about friends, their enthusiasm about anime, about TV shows you barely know about or understand – do it with everything.

Give them your full attention, follow the steps above, and when they’re done, thank them for taking the time to share. When you do that with the little things, it will increase the likelihood they’ll share the big things, too.

Try it: the results will surprise you.

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