Investing in Teens, Part 3: Ready to Listen

It never fails.

It’s 3:30 in the afternoon and I realize I have about 30 minutes to myself before I start making dinner. Just as I settle in with my book, my teen plops down on the couch next to me. “Whatcha reading, Mom? Oh, that sounds cool. Hey, did I show you this video I found…”

It’s 11:27 pm and my bed is calling. I finish brushing my teeth and walk into my bedroom, and then hear footsteps in the hallway. “Hey Momma, do you have a minute?” she says…

Why is it my teens never want to talk when I’m ready to listen? It seems like, without fail, they always approach me at the most inconvenient times! 

Oh, that happens to you, too? 

It’s crazy, right?

Last night I listened to a video interview with Craig Groeschel, the pastor of Life.church, on “Raising Biblically Based World Changers.” I already had this blog topic planned, so I perked up when he mentioned how important it is for us to listen to our teens. 

He said, “While young children need our physical presence, teenagers need our emotional presence, but they are not always emotionally available to us. So when they are, we need to drop everything and listen.

He couldn’t be more right.

In the last blog post about listening so teens will talk, I shared some things we can do to ensure that we are actively listening to and communicating with our teens instead of just trying to tell them how much we know. 

Today I want to share a few ways we can make the most of opportunities to get our kids talking, so we’ll be ready to listen when the time comes.

1.  Learn WHEN your teens are most emotionally available so you can listen. 

This may seem silly, but I have found this one thing helps my listening attitude more than anything else. Believe it or not, my patience level at 11:27 p.m. is not super high- I am physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted by that time in the day. The LAST thing I want to do is spend an hour reminding myself of all the things I need to do to be a good parent while my teen pours out her heart- or at least, that’s the last thing I FEEL like doing.

But the truth is, underneath the feeling, there is actually nothing in the world I would rather do more than listen to my teen’s heart. So learning their rhythms has helped me a lot in preparing my own heart to be ready.  

The best way to do this is simply to pay attention. Make a note of when your teen approaches you for conversation, even seemingly insignificant conversation, like sharing a TikTok video or rehashing some terrible call in last week’s game. Before long, you will likely begin to notice a pattern or a rhythm to when they tend to make themselves available to you. For some it’s after school, or right before dinner, but for many- especially older teens- it’s after 11:00 p.m.  Maybe their defenses come down when they’re tired? That’s my theory. Whatever the reason, it’s pretty much universal, so watch for it!

The important thing, though, is to discern your teen’s rhythms so you can prepare and be emotionally available to them.

2. Learn HOW your teens make themselves emotionally available for you to listen.

Some kids spout their innermost thoughts like a gushing fire hydrant, while others wait for you to pry every single word out of their zippered lips. Some kids process externally, while others process internally. Some are comfortable sharing their feelings, and others, not so much. None of these things are right or wrong; they are simply how your teen tends to communicate. Learning these tendencies is kind of like learning to speak our teen’s language, because they show us the best ways to approach conversations with them. 

Does your teen have a hard time expressing their emotions verbally but like to write? Keeping a shared journal is one way you can help them open up to you. One of our daughters tends to hold her feelings inside. She had an especially difficult time expressing anger and frustration towards us or sharing things that she thought we just wouldn’t understand. Using a journal gave her a chance to open up without feeling disrespectful, as she was able to write down things she never would have had the courage to say in person. It also helped her process her thoughts so she had a better grasp of what she was really feeling, and it gave me time to think and process as well so I could respond with grace and truth. Now it is a beautiful record of our relationship over the years, and she can read those pages to be reminded of how very much her dad and I love her! As she has gotten older, we have made an effort to coach her in expressing herself verbally, but the journal was very helpful for a season.

Our other daughter expresses her feelings almost too easily and hates to write, so the journal idea wouldn’t work for her. Instead, we’ve learned (and are still learning!) that when she gets worked up about something, she is not ready for conversation until she releases all her emotions. Since my husband has thick skin and a higher tolerance for confrontation than me, he likes to poke and prod and help her get it all out, so they can deal with whatever is really going on. I, on the other hand, gently tell her I can tell she’s upset, so she needs to go into another room until she feels better and then I’ll be ready to listen. Okay, so my words often sound gentler in my head than they do out loud, and they are rarely received calmly by her- but we are working on it! Once she calms down, we usually have a great conversation about whatever is going on in her world. 

Some teens find it very difficult to express themselves at all! But that doesn’t mean they don’t need to share. It just means they need someone to invest the time in helping them figure out how to open up. Maybe they like to text, or make videos. Maybe watching a TV show or playing a video game together will allow them (or you) opportunities to bring up topics they would otherwise not talk about.

The important thing is to invest time in learning HOW your teens communicate so you can look for opportunities and be ready to listen.

3. Learn WHERE your teens are most emotionally available so you can listen.

Does your teen love Starbucks? Then buy them a latte and sit down for a chat. Does your teen love baseball? Head to the field. Does your kid avoid one on one conversations? Then wait until you have them trapped! 

Actually, I’m not kidding. Some of the best conversations with teens take place in the car. I have found that teen boys, especially, seem to open up better while riding side by side in a vehicle as opposed to sitting down face to face. I don’t suggest this avenue (ha, get it?!) for bringing up super volatile issues, but many awkward or embarrassing topics (which for boys can mean anything slightly emotional) are much more productive if discussed with some sort of distraction. It could be riding in a car or working on a project together or playing golf- anything that works for you, as long as it gives your teen an opportunity to open up without feeling like they are the center of attention.

Remember, it is still important for them to have your full attention, but just in a way that doesn’t make them feel so self-conscious. 

During his interview, Groeschel mentioned that he has found his teen’s friends often open up to him easier than his own kids. Therefore, he has learned to engage his teen’s friends in conversations, and they eventually join in. If your teen doesn’t always respond well when you initiate conversation, try bringing their friends into it and see what happens! Perhaps they will open up more in a group of friends.

4.  Show your kids you’re ready to listen by keeping communication open.

This is probably the most important thing we can do as parents. No matter what your kids tell you, don’t act surprised, shocked, or disappointed. Don’t be overly antagonistic or judgemental towards their friends. There will be time for those insights, but the best thing we can do when our teens are emotionally available is keep them talking. Ask questions, make connections to their feelings, find out what they think about things, anything. As Groeschel said, “the goal is just to keep them talking. We should shoot for 90% listening and 10% talking.” The more we know, the better we are able to express our love to them, to pray for them, and to offer help or advice when they seek it.

Again, just because I know the importance of being ready to listen to my teens, doesn’t mean I always am. The past few days have been filled with failures on my part in this exact area, so I am definitely preaching to the choir! 

But I won’t stop trying. 

As exhausting as parenting can be some days, our time to speak into our teens lives is limited, and we cannot waste it. But before we can speak, we must be intentional about listening, so they know how much we care. 

When our teens are ready to talk, will we be ready to listen?

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.