Being Seen and Heard: the Importance of Listening to Teens
It was once expected and accepted, that 'children should be seen and not heard'. Thankfully, this mindset is outdated and fails to recognize the knowledge young people’s lived experience offers.
In Australian Indigenous culture, there is a word that describes 'deep listening' which is known as dadirri. Dadirri is an inner, quiet, or still awareness that is available to everyone (Dr Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann). It is a practice based upon respect, and extends to the interpersonal, intrapersonal, and environmental landscapes we traverse. In this context, it also pertains to 'being present' and determines how we 'show up' in life.
Listening to Teens: Ignore the Impulse to Tell Them What to Do
Imagine for a moment that your young person starts to share with you their perspective about something important to them. As they speak, you immediately hear the flaws in their logic. The next natural step for you as a parent might be to point out the flaws with their reasoning, followed by an overwhelming urge to give advice, even though it was not asked for and you know that the conversation will end in frustration and disappointment.
Albert Einstein once said something to the effect of, “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is insanity.”
Yet, as parents, we live with the faint hope that this time it may be different; that our young person will listen and understand. However, the odds are not in our favour; past experience suggests there's a high probability that the outcome will be the same. You may tell yourself that some of what you said might have sunk in to make yourself feel better. It may feel hopeless sometimes, but like most parents (myself included) you just keep repeating the same cycle.
Let’s flip the script.
Do Parents Know Best?
Author Miguel Brown believes that trying to get through to your teenager stems from both narcissism and fear.
The narcissism: the assumption that you know what’s best for your teen.
The fear: if they don’t do what you say, they may end up hurt or failing.
The remedy: to intentionally pause, be there, be present and listen.
When Not To Give Advice
What if your teen does occasionally know what is best? What if struggling, on occasion, is a good thing? And what if your teen manages to solve the problem in their own way, despite ignoring your advice; that may be the most frustrating situation of all.
Instead of giving advice to your teenager immediately, press pause and just listen. In fact, listen very carefully, deeply, and try to understand where they are coming from. This approach has much more power than you realize. Listen, and then repeat their thoughts back to them to clarify your understanding from their perspective.
It is helpful for teenagers to hear their thoughts and feelings reflected back to them so they can try to solve their own problems. This is how we can support their development into becoming independent, resilient, and compassionate young adults.
What Happens When We Listen to Our Teens?
Parents are often challenged and surprised to learn that if you avoid giving advice and lecturing, listen closely and encourage teenagers to talk about what is happening, they often come to their own reasonable conclusions.
In fact, the experience of being 'seen and heard' is vital to developing many life skills including, but not limited to:
- social skills
- processing information
- expanding vocabulary
- practicing assertive, respectful and clear communication. This can lead to increased self-confidence and self-worth.
Parents are often in a tough position, between a rock and a hard place so to speak. After years of life experience, we often assume to already know the deal and can think of several possible solutions.
But for teenagers, the experience is new and difficult, so watching them struggle through it can be tedious and excruciating. However, this is their story, not ours: what matters most to them may not be the same for us. But keep watching.
If you give them enough time to process the problem, they too can get to a solution. Trust them to learn what they need, and from whom. They may choose to speak to another trusted adult (who is not a parent) as part of this process. They may falter or fail before they succeed, but this is the stuff that fosters resilience. Trust them to ask for your help if they need it. Don’t rush in to 'fix' what they may not have recognized as a problem. Pay attention to what they share on social media, try connecting with them through text messages, or sharing social media that is of mutual interest or amusement, they are digital natives after all.
And ask them often how they are doing. Give your teenagers the gift of time and patience, meet them where they are, and not where you want them to be.
Director of Counselling
Acknowledgements & further reading
Listening to young people
Resources from our Term 3 Woodleigh PEP talk with Dr Joanne Orlando who spoke with us on the topic: Digital Wellbeing: How to stay focused in an age of distraction.