The moment my voice emits sound, I can see my twin teens’ eyes glaze over. Sometimes they must register at least one word I said (or maybe it’s just a Pavlovian response) because they use the dreaded eye roll.
As a parent, it can feel frustrating when you realize your teen isn’t listening, especially since experts agree it is important to have a strong relationship with your teenager. That involves communication.
"An important predictor of how well your teen will listen to you is the strength of your relationship with them. The amount of time we spend building a relationship without expectations will increase the likelihood that they will listen," says Mona Delahooke, pediatric psychologist and author of Beyond Behaviors: Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children's Behavioral Challenges (PESI Publishing, 2019).
According to the experts, here are some ways you can make sure teenagers is hearing you.
Connect Before You Direct
Laura Markham, clinical psychologist and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting (TarcherPerigee, 2012), suggests that parents should notice what their teen is doing or find some other way to make a warm connection before speaking to them. She also recommended sitting next to teenagers instead of yelling across the room: "Please clean your room."
If you want teenagers to listen to you, then you must also listen to them. Make sure when you listen to them that they feel understood. Jennifer Salerno, nurse practitioner and author of Teen Speak: A Guide to Understanding and Communicating With Your Teen (Possibilities for Change, 2017), says, "It’s all about modeling the behavior that you’d like them to reciprocate. Setting the stage for a positive discussion by actively listening causes them to feel respected and heard."
Markham says, "The most important thing is calmness. When you yell, you increase your teen's stress level, and they shut you out and lose the desire to cooperate. Never talk with your teen while you are angry."
Delahooke recommends that parents pay attention to their emotional state and body language. "When you sit next to your teen, make sure you are providing a message of trust in them."
If teenagers have a routine of what they are expected to do every day at a certain time of day, they are more likely to do it. These routines are also a good time to talk to them and be heard. "Activities like cooking together, walking the dog and riding alone in the car are ideal times for an important topic to be discussed," says Salerno.
Clarify Your Role
Teenagers are more likely to listen and follow your suggestions and requests if you clarify your role.
"Explain to your teen that the rules and boundaries you are trying to establish are there to help guide and protect them.," says Kenneth Ginsburg, M.D., a physician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and co-founder of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication. "When you clarify your role in this way, your teen will more likely understand the purpose behind the rule, big or small."
Ginsburg explains that if your teen doesn't take an action you'd hoped for, then make sure that when you discuss it with them make it about their behavior – not the person.
He stresses the importance of avoiding nagging. "It's easy to fall into a cycle of nagging that can lead to frustration on both sides. When teens sense your annoyance, they may become defensive. When you make requests in an accusatory tone, they become ineffective."
If there are chores that teenagers need to do, offer them the option of selecting one of three chores. According to Salerno, "Teens feel respected when they are given options, not directives, which ultimately lowers their resistance." You can also give them a choice of what time they want to complete their chores.