The Investment of Listening: How to listen so teens will talk

“Mom, you just don’t understand! You’re not even listening to me!” she lamented as she stomped off, slamming her door.

This scene repeated itself countless times during our younger daughter’s pre-teen years (and still does on occasion). And she wasn’t wrong. I was hearing her words, but I was not really listening to what she was trying to communicate, probably because I was too focused on what I wanted her to understand instead. Thankfully, my husband is a rock star and filled in the gaps for us during those tumultuous years, always reminding us how much we loved each other and never letting us give up on trying to understand one another. He reminded me of a foundational truth in ministry and life:

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

If you are like me, there are so many things we want our teens to know: lessons we’d rather them not learn the hard way (like we did), wisdom we have acquired through decades of walking with God, and just basic common sense that they may be lacking. Yet, so often when we try to impart this much needed wisdom to them, we are met with blank stares and deaf ears. Why? 

Because kids don’t care how much we know until they know how much we care. 

So that begs the question: How do we let the teenagers in our lives know that we care about them?

There are many different ways to accomplish this, but for now we are going to focus on the investment of active listening. My 12th grade small group girls are currently learning about the 5 Love Languages (Gary Chapman), and yesterday I asked them what it looks like to spend time with someone without it actually being “Quality Time.” 

One girl quickly replied, “Sitting next to each other, but with one or both of you on your phone the whole time.” Great example. 

“So, if quality time doesn’t just mean being in close proximity with someone, what does it actually look like? What is it about being with someone that makes you feel loved (or doesn’t)?” 

After a few minutes, they began to share words like “intentional,” and “uninterrupted.” They mentioned that what they do together (the activity) doesn’t matter as much as how they do it. They want to know that the other person is there because they really want to be with them and not just because they have nothing better to do.

When I asked for examples of when they had spent Quality Time with someone, I noticed something interesting. When they talked about ways they had shown love to others (especially their parents), they mentioned the activities- “It didn’t really matter to him that we were just throwing the football/making cookies/reading & studying/etc. I think he mostly liked that I was doing it with him.” But when they shared about someone investing quality time in them, they focused on the conversation instead of the activity. 

What can we learn from this? 

Our teens want someone to listen.

Digging a little deeper, they confirmed that not all “listening” is the same. As with my opening illustration with my daughter, someone can hear your words without hearing your heart. Here are some of the important things they shared about listening:

1. Eye Contact.  There is an obvious difference between when someone is looking in your eyes and when they are looking around the room or at their phone. When you are interested in something, it holds your attention. Our teens desperately want to know that what they are saying is more important than our latest notification.

2. Ask Questions.  “When someone asks questions about what I’m telling them, it shows they are really listening and engaged. Not only that, it makes me feel like they are actually interested and want to know more!” As the listener, asking questions can help us learn more about the person and situation. It can also help us clarify their emotions…

3. Sympathize/Empathize.  Teens want to know that we understand them, which means, more than anything, they want us to validate their feelings. “Wow, I can’t believe your coach did that! That must have made you so mad!” “She really said that? Ugh. I bet that really hurt your feelings!” Remember, there will be a time to share what we know, but first, we need to show how much we care! 

Full disclosure– I usually do this really well with my small group girls, but not so well with my own kids. I tend to rush right into imparting my wisdom and telling them how to fix it, usually pointing out their part in the problem as I go. Do not do this!! I am training myself to repeat “FOCUS ON HER FEELINGS, FOCUS ON HER FEELINGS” and let the rest of it go. For now. (Men, this advice is pretty applicable for the women in your life, too!) 

Also, while you want to validate their feelings, resist the urge to gossip or slander anyone. They have enough friends- they are talking to you as an adult. Our goal is to show them how much they are loved and point them to Jesus. We can empathize with their feelings without compromising our witness.

4. Ask and wait. Do they want a solution to their problem or do they just want someone to understand? Sometimes this is evident as you listen, but if not, just ask: “Do you have any idea how you want to respond? Is there anything I can do to help?” If they want your help, they will ask for it. If not, trust that your presence is enough. Those doors will open eventually, maybe when they are not so emotional, because they are learning they can trust you. Sometimes sharing a story of a time you went through something similar (and had a positive outcome or learned something important) can be helpful; just make sure you are not trying to make the conversation about you. Teens see through stuff like that in a heartbeat. We are the adults; we are there to support and encourage them, not to feed our own ego or make ourselves feel important. 

5.  Point them to Jesus.  When a teen opens up to an adult, they are expecting an adult’s response. Once we have done all the things mentioned above- focused attention, asked questions, empathized with them, and asked to help- then we can offer to pray with them. We might share some Scripture that applies to their circumstance or that will encourage them. This can be intimidating if you are not used to doing it, but you will likely be surprised at how receptive they are. And really, Jesus is the One who has the answers they are seeking. He is the One whose love and acceptance matters so much more than ours. The sooner they grasp that, the stronger their faith will be. We just get to be a conduit of His love and grace in their lives!

Finally, the thing I so often forget is that listening to teens in the little, insignificant things is what opens the door to them sharing the big things when the time comes. Learning to be excited about another episode of Fuller House or the latest cast list of a Broadway show or the play-by-play of the football game paves the way for the more significant conversations. If we are faithful with the little things, they learn to trust us with the bigger things. And the truth is, we learn so much about them in those little things- what is important to them, what makes them angry, what brings them joy. Knowing those things helps us truly care about them.

And once they know how much we care, they might just care about what (and WHO) we know.

How are your active listening skills with the teens in your life? Which of these areas are you strong in and which require some growth? Who made a difference in your life by taking the time to truly listen to you in your teen years?

Let’s be intentional this week about showing our teens how much we care by taking the time to really listen.

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