Now that the new school year is upon us, I’m reminded of a woman who wrote in to ask for advice on dealing with her oldest son who was having a tough first year of high school. It involved him leaving old friends behind in middle school, trying to make new ones, figuring out what teams to try out for and navigating teachers and classes that were challenging and sometimes unfair. Thankfully, though, he was still talking to his parents about his struggles. But what she found frustrating is that all she heard was moaning and groaning. “Dramatic injustice” (her term) was all she heard out of the mouth of her teenage son. But then came the boom: he turned it around on his mom and said she wasn’t even listening to him! While she and her husband were offering helpful suggestions and ways for him to “man up,” all he heard was them refusing to listen to his feelings.
Oops, has it been that long since we were teenagers and said (or thought) the exact same thing about our parents? Ah, we all swore that it would never happen to us! If you don’t remember, let me remind you of the number one gripe of a teenager: “My parents don’t listen.” And nothing has changed in that way since we were kids. I’ve studied thousands of today’s teens, and they said the same thing.
Read on about what I discovered:
What Listening Really Means To Teens
The good news is that our kids actually want to talk to us. They want to share things with you just as much as you want to hear them. What they’re looking for from you, though, is a lot more empathy and a lot less instruction.
It turns out that, for our kids, listening means hearing and acknowledging what they are feeling about a problem, first and foremost, and long before you get to any solutions. When they say (oh-so-dramatically!) “You don’t listen to me,” what they mean is “You aren’t hearing what I feel!” They subconsciously assume that if you so quickly share a solution, you couldn’t have taken the time to understand their feelings yet.
Studies Revealed Surprising Similarities
If you’re familiar with some of my work, you’ll realize this is what my husband, Jeff, and I told men about their wives in For Men Only! Most women need to have their feelings heard before being interested in working on a solution, so I wasn’t surprised when teenage girls had the same need—but I was very surprised that teenage boys did! In fact, eight out of 10 kids we interviewed—both boys and girls—said that, before jumping in to fix a problem, they first needed their parents to hear, acknowledge and tend to the emotions behind the problem. And if that didn’t happen, angst grew—and emotion and drama accelerated.
We’re not sure exactly when boys grow into men who don’t care as much about having their feelings heard and who say (in nice deep voices), “Just tell me how to fix it.” But at least through age 17, they still need the same feelings-oriented response as girls.
Learn What Specifically Speaks To Boys
What I assured this woman was that since her son was in his first year of high school, she still had time to track down her teenage self and get reacquainted. And for all of us with teenage children, we should try to remember how much we appreciated our friends who would just listen without trying to fix anything.
And next, we should ask our husbands or male friends what sort of empathy is specifically helpful to a boy. It will be different from what helps a girl! (When a teenage girl is upset it is usually because of feeling rejected, being bullied by mean girls who signal “no one likes you,” and people talking about her behind her back—all the things that trigger a girl’s inner “does anyone love me” insecurity.) But boys are different. Boys—just like their dads—have a lot of secret insecurities about being inadequate, incapable, or failing at something they try to do in front of someone else. So if your son is angry or upset about a teacher being unfair, it is likely tied to feeling stupid or inadequate—and everybody seeing it. He needs you to let him talk about how stupid and embarrassed he felt, be indignant on his behalf, and reassure him that you are proud of him.
The research was clear that most teenagers did, in fact, want to share things with their parents. The key is that we need to acknowledge that they have feelings that they want heard and be a safe, listening ear. And before we know it, we will see them sharing a lot more—and a lot more often.
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Shaunti Feldhahn loves sharing eye-opening information that helps people thrive in life and relationships. She herself started out with a Harvard graduate degree and Wall Street credentials but no clue about life. After an unexpected shift into relationship research for average people like her, she now is a popular speaker and author of best-selling books about men, women and relationships. (Including For Women Only, For Men Only, and the groundbreaking The Good News About Marriage).
Her latest book, Find Rest: A Women’s Devotional for Lasting Peace in Busy Life, focuses on a journey to rest even with life’s constant demands.
Visit www.shaunti.com for more.