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Active Listening: Best Parenting Practices for Raising Defiant Teens

Some behaviors of defiant teenagers are bids for attention, while others are expressions of frustration at not feeling understood. Moms and dads will be able to reduce problem behaviors when the adolescent feels genuinely cared about, understood, and paid attention to. The best way to accomplish this is through “active listening” – a simple, yet highly under-rated parenting strategy.

Active listening is hard work, and takes energy and practice. This is why most parents don’t do it (a BIG parenting mistake!). It can’t be done when thinking about - or attending to - other things, or when distractions occur. Active listening doesn’t have to last a long time, but attention must be focused completely on the adolescent, and the message must be communicated back to the adolescent in the parent’s own words in a way that lets the adolescent know he or she was really heard. Tone of voice, respect for personal space, facial expressions, eye contact, choices of words, and body language are all important in communicating the desired message. It may take a few attempts to really understand the message, but that is O.K. (as long as it is finally understood accurately).

To know how to really listen to your child, think about how you would want to be listened to. Greater communication brings greater parent-child bonding. Moms and dads listening to their teenagers helps build their self-esteem. It makes them feel worthy, appreciated, interesting and respected. When we as parents really listen to our children, we foster this skill in them by acting as a model for positive and effective communication.

While the ideas around active listening are largely intuitive, it might actually take some practice to develop (or re-develop) the skill. Here’s what good listeners know – and what you as a parent of a defiant teenager should know too:

1. Active listening is a model for respect and understanding. You are gaining information and perspective. You add nothing by attacking your adolescent or otherwise putting him or her down. So treat your child in a way that you think he or she would want to be treated. Be candid, open, and honest in your response. Also, assert your opinions respectfully.

2. As you work on developing your listening skills, you may feel a bit panicky when there is a natural pause in the parent-child conversation. What should you say next? Will you make a bad problem worse by responding in a certain way? Learn to settle into the silence, and use it to better understand your child’s point of view.

3. Avoid letting your adolescent know how you handled a similar situation. Unless he or she specifically asks for advice, assume your teen just needs to talk it out.

4. Be deliberate with your listening and remind yourself frequently that your goal is to truly hear what your teenager is saying – even if he or she is angry at the time. Set aside all other thoughts and behaviors and concentrate on the message. Ask questions, reflect and paraphrase to ensure you understand the message. If you don't, then you'll find that what your adolescent actually says - and what you hear - are two different things.

==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

5. Even if your adolescent is launching a complaint against you, wait until he or she finishes before you defend yourself. Your adolescent will feel as though his or her point had been made. He or she won’t feel the need to repeat it, and you’ll know the whole argument before you respond.

6. Face your adolescent. Sit up straight or lean forward slightly to show your attentiveness through body language.

7. Remember that non-verbal communication also "speaks" loudly too: (a) notice your adolescent's body language; (b) avoid being distracted by environmental factors (e.g., side conversations); (c) don't mentally prepare a rebuttal; (d) look at your adolescent directly; and (e) put aside distracting thoughts.

8. If you find yourself responding emotionally to what your adolescent said, say so, and ask for more information (e.g., "I may not understand you correctly, and I find myself taking what you said personally. What I thought you just said is ________. Is that what you meant?").

9. Interrupting will make a bad problem worse. It frustrates your adolescent and limits full understanding of the message. So don't interrupt with counter arguments, and allow your adolescent to finish each point before asking questions (notice I said “asking questions” instead of defending yourself).

10. Minimize external distractions. Turn off the TV. Put down your book or magazine, and ask your adolescent to do the same.

11. Minimize internal distractions. If your own thoughts keep horning in, simply let them go and continue to re-focus your attention on your adolescent’ message (similar to what you would do during meditation).

12. Our personal filters, assumptions, judgments and beliefs often distort what we hear. As a parent, your mission is to truly understand what your child is trying to convey. This may require you to reflect what is being said and ask questions: (a) ask questions to clarify certain points (e.g., "What do you mean when you say ___?"); (b) reflect what has been said by paraphrasing (e.g., "What I'm hearing is ___.); and (c) summarize your adolescent's comments periodically.

13. Try not to think about what you are going to say next. The conversation will follow a logical flow after your adolescent makes his or her point.

14. Use your own body language and gestures to convey your attention: (a) encourage your adolescent to continue talking by using your small verbal comments (e.g., “yes” and “I see”); (b) nod occasionally; (c) note your posture and make sure it is open and inviting; and (d) smile and use other facial expressions.

15. Wait until your adolescent is finished before deciding that you disagree. Try not to make assumptions about what he or she is thinking. Research shows that, on average, we can hear four times faster than we can talk, so we have the ability to sort ideas as they come in – and be ready for more.

Active listening is a crucial technique to parenting a defiant teen. Active listening involves focusing on the speaker. Active listening manifests itself by asking good questions, paraphrasing what the speaker has said, and showing empathy. Once your teen sees that you understand what he or she is trying to say, your teen will most likely show some interest in what YOU have to say (which is the all-important end-point that you are trying to get to).


==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

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