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Listening to Your Teenager

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz and Emuna Braverman

How to really listen to your teen who has somehow managed to reduce her vocabulary to "whatever" and some eye rolling.

What is it about teenagers and their communications skills? How did your clever and articulate daughter manage to reduce her accumulated vocabulary to "whatever" and some eye rolling? How does your son, with whom you have had so many interesting debates, function by a system of grunts and a strategically placed "Wha…?"?

Don't be shocked by the marked decrease in the level and amount of communication between you and your offspring when they cross that invisible yet powerful border into adolescence. It is normal for teenagers to shut down, to retreat to their rooms, to severely curtail their conversations with you -- all the while spending hours on the phone with their friends.

Don't even try to compete. Just make sure to check in with our children for at least a few minutes every day. To catch up on their lives and show we care.

And they need to know we are really listening.

Begin with eye contact. Do not underestimate the importance or looking at your teen when he or she speaks. It makes them feel heard.

Maybe hold her hand. Touch goes a long way towards deepening the sense of connection.

Make each child feel like you have a and exclusive relationship. Don't talk to all your children in the same way. Gear your tone and words for this particular human being.

If you ask generic questions, you'll get generic answers -- if you're lucky.

Try this test. Are the questions you're asking your children ones that anyone could ask? Are they generic? "How was your day?" "What's new at school?"

If you ask generic questions, you may just get generic answers. And that's if you're lucky and get any answers at all. A generic question communicates, "I didn't really pay attention to what you told me. I'm just fulfilling my duty and going through the motions."

A specific question, tailored for your adolescent says, "I care. I was listening. Your life, your friends, your concerns are important to me." "How was your chemistry test? I know that's a tough subject for you." "Did you patch things up with Dina today?"

Whenever I would go to speak with Rabbi Pam, of blessed memory, he would pick up the conversation from wherever we had left off the last time, even if it was weeks or months later. That's listening.

I heard a sad story the other day. Sarah has a very empty relationship with her mother. Her mother never listened to her so Sarah did what any logical person would do -- she stopped talking to her. Now Sarah is saddened to hear her mother say, "If only we had had lunch together more when you were in college…"

"You still don't understand mom," she wants to scream (and cry). "It's not about the lunches. Since you never listened to me, there was no relationship to build on."

I have a policy of trying to turn off my phone when talking to the teenagers I work with and when talking to my own children. "I'm with you," I tell them. "Why would I want to speak to someone else?"

I often encourage families to turn off the ringer on the telephone during dinnertime. It is a very powerful message to your children -- that this is precious family time, and during these 20-30 minutes, it is family above all.

How often do we encounter a sight like this: A father on a ride with his young son at an amusement park, speaking on his cell phone as the ride went round and round? No doubt the father must have made such an effort to take the day off and spend it with his son, an effort that seems unfortunately wasted.

Often, in our hectic lives, we may not have a choice. There are phone calls that we do need to take -- often at inopportune times. However, our children should get the message from us -- in word and deed - that our time with them is very valuable to us.

Another key component to good listening is genuine interest. If this was your potential new boss and your job was at stake, if this was the administrator of a foundation and your funding was on the line, if this was someone you were trying to convince to partner a business deal with you, you'd be very interested in what he had to say. You'd force yourself to be.

Your children deserve no less.

And they need your real compassion. If something is troubling them or confusing them, they often would love assistance to help sort it out. Every situation is different. If they say, "You've never been in the same situation as me," acknowledge the truth of it. "You're right. I don't know. Tell me about it." It's not about your life. It's about them.

It's also necessary to convey that you recognize what's special and about this child: their strengths and weaknesses; the ways in which they're helpful, the ways in which they're not; their role in the family. "Thank you for helping Shalom with his homework when we were out the other night. That was very thoughtful and responsible of you. You're great with the younger children!"

And have a good time talking to them. You're doing it because you want to, not because you have to.

Don't be condescending or patronizing. You know that in 20 years (or 20 minutes) this issue will be irrelevant and trivial. But at this moment, in their universe, it's very real and important.

When they say (or think), "I will let you into my life this far and no more," respect autonomy and their privacy. Don't push and pry and probe.

Listening to your teenagers is an essential cornerstone to any future relationship. And who knows? You might even like what you hear.

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