How to Listen so Your Kids Will Want to Talk to You

There’s not a doubt in my mind that parents want their kids to talk to them. That becomes a challenge when kids enter their pre-teen and teen years, but it’s far from an insurmountable one. 

As a former high school teacher who has worked with thousands of teenagers and their parents, and as the author of the parenting book Teenagers 101, I understand that even the best parents need help navigating the teen years.  

It helps to know what kids are dealing with as they enter this stage of life. Around middle-school age, kids’ primary concern is fitting in with the group, whether that group is a class, a team, or a social network of friends. While they still want input from parents and need their love and consistency, they now depend on and crave attention from their peers in pretty much equal measure. This is why kids seem to change a great deal at this age – they are absorbing and modeling the behaviors of their peers and beginning to figure out who they are. 

As they enter high school, teens are less consumed with being just like everyone else and are more interested in claiming their independence. Now they don’t mind standing out, as long as it’s on their own terms. And now they are much more likely to become argumentative or defiant, especially when they feel they are being treated like children or hammered by parent expectations. 

While all of this is normal – and supported by the science of the developing brain and by decades of data – it sometimes doesn’t feel normal. Parents want help understanding their kids, and that desire has grown into desperation in recent years, as teen stress and suicide have reached all-time highs, causing more teens to enter therapy than ever in history.

Dr. Angela M. Pfeiffer, a clinical psychologist working with the Sugar Bend Center group in Sugar Land, Texas, says that particularly post-pandemic, she is seeing a greater number of young clients suffering from stress-related issues. She says, “One of the primary developmental foci for teens is increased and improved social connections – REAL social connections – which support the longer-term goal of independence. Passive watching and engagement with others, or even texting or talking to online friends, is not the same as learning the social mechanisms necessary to navigate face-to-face relationships. When teens have less access to real social connections, this causes stress.”

Clearly, the pandemic and its forced online learning and diminished in-person socializing has taken a toll on everyone, but teens are especially hard hit, as they are also dealing with a changing – and very challenging – world.

Increasing competitiveness and the ability to use social media to attack others from behind a screen can push kids to the point of hopelessness. They need someone to talk to, and that’s where parents play a crucial role. If parents have not presented themselves as open to hear difficult news, or they consistently come across as judgmental or preachy, kids will clam up, refusing to ask for help. 

Pfeiffer says, “Telling kids what to do and how to feel and how to solve their problems will not work. Yes, when kids are little, it makes sense to shape their behavior. When they get older, however, parents should shift from being managers to being coaches.”

This starts with one key ingredient: listening. And that means listening with no distractions and giving your full attention to your child. Once you hear their concerns, it’s important to stay calm and to avoid sending the message that the child’s problem is not important or is easily fixed. 

“You will shut them down if you react with emotion or worse, tell them what they’re feeling isn’t right,” says Pfeiffer. “If your child comes to you saying he is depressed, avoid saying, ‘You can’t be depressed. Your life is so great. You have nothing to be depressed about,’ because those statements are not helpful and actually add guilt to the depression.”  

Let’s say your child is staying in her room, not spending time with friends like she used to, and laughing and smiling less. She is exhibiting signs of depression, and you are concerned. 

Pfeiffer advises opening up communication on your kid’s timeline, not your own. If that means late at night, when you least want to talk, so be it. Start by asking about something specific, whether it’s a test or a friend or that day’s practice. Then just sit back and let them talk. Really listen. Don’t say “I know how you feel, I had the same problem.” Kids have the sense that our lives were much different from theirs, and they balk at comparisons.

Instead, ask your kids if they want you to just listen or if they want some ideas. Pfeiffer says, “Help them problem solve by sharing options and brainstorming with them, versus dictating what they should do. This creates a safe space. If you do this each time, it will become a pattern that kids will trust and rely on, and they’ll feel much more comfortable coming to you.”

When I work with parents, I also point out that your reaction to whatever your kids tell you is everything. If you respond with emotion, whether it’s anger, sadness, or resentment, your kids simply won’t come to you anymore. However, if you concentrate on not reacting, your kids will feel like they can tell you anything. 

And remember that we may have the gift of 30 more years of experience and the wisdom that comes with it, but our kids do not. We know that everything will eventually work out, but they don’t. So be careful not to come across as dismissive and be sure to validate their feelings. 

If you see warning signs of depression or your child is making statements about not wanting to live anymore, it’s especially important to listen and be a resource. Then let your child know your job is to take care of him and that you are going to talk to someone and would like him to go with you. It’s always better to seek professional help than to assume depression is just a stage or phase. 

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Dr. Rebecca Deurlein

REBECCA DEURLEIN IS A FREELANCE WRITER AND THE AUTHOR OF TEENAGERS 101: WHAT A TOP TEACHER WISHES YOU KNEW ABOUT HELPING YOUR KID SUCCEED (HARPER COLLINS). REBECCA WRITES FOR LOCAL AND NATIONAL MAGAZINES AND NEWSPAPERS AND LOVES EVERY MINUTE OF LIVING IN SUGAR LAND, TX. FIND HER ON AMAZON, BARNES & NOBLE, HUFFINGTON POST, OR THROUGH HER OWN BLOG A TEACHER’S GUIDE TO UNDERSTANDING TEENAGERS.