Quoth the teen: You never listen to me!

March 29, 2016

You never listen to me anyway!” Sound familiar? Every parent has heard it. A lot. Of course we listen. We listen when they need a ride to ball practice. We listen when they tell us about the spelling bee they won. We listen when we need to pay their school fees, lesson fees, and sports fees.

We listen when they need to vent after a bad day at school. We listen when they come home late at night from a marvelous date. Or a terrible one.

We listen a lot, and much of what we hear is what isn’t spoken. We see the body language, the posture, and we hear the tone of voice. But are we really paying attention to all their cues?

In a 2011 article for Psychology Today, child psychologist Carl E. Pickhardt wrote: “Start by understanding that listening can be very expensive. For example, you have to shift focus off yourself and onto someone else. You have to invest energy in paying attention to what they are saying. You have to process what is being said. You may hear uninteresting or disturbing information you would rather not know. Based on what you’ve been told, you may feel obligated to do something in response.”

In reality, sometimes our teens just need to tell us stuff, but they don’t necessarily want us to try to solve all their problems. After listening to something that may be rather difficult to hear, often it works well to just ask, “How do you feel about that?” Then take the time to hear and understand their real feelings. Parents might be surprised at how wise their children really are.

Pickhardt continues: “Then there are the occasions when you have listened at length to your teenager only to be told you haven’t been listening at all. Turns out, the adolescent is making one or more of four charges against you. How does she know you haven’t been listening?

“‘Because you don’t understand what I have to say.’ ‘Because you don’t agree with what I say.’ ‘Because you won’t change your mind based on what I say.’ ‘Because you won’t do what I say!’

“Of course none of these adolescent accusations have anything to do with listening, which is simply taking the time and devoting the attention to hearing what someone has to tell.” (from “Listening to Your Adolescent”)

As children grow older, they can become rather determined in their opinions. They are sure their parents don’t know what we are talking about. They know more than we do and we should listen to them. At this age, every conversation has the potential to turn into an argument best avoided. We are still listening. A lot.

Pickhardt writes, “It’s when parents actually refuse to listen that they can be silently abusive. They won’t take the time. They won’t devote the attention. They won’t show the interest. ‘You never listen to me!’ complains the teenager, acting hurt because the message he takes to heart may be: ‘I'm not worth listening to!’ That’s one important point for parents to remember: listening affirms that the speaker has something worthwhile to say. Not listening denies or dismisses that value.”

What children may not realize is that there is a difference between listening and agreeing. Even though we hear them, we might not always agree with their viewpoint. Children want us to think like they do; parents can’t always do that. We like to be friends with our children, but that doesn’t mean being a teen right along with them. We still need to maintain our position of authority.

The world we grew up in is much different than the world today. Anyone can name inventions that didn’t exist when we were children. Poor behavior at school 50 years ago consisted of talking aloud in class and writing on the desks. Now teachers have to deal with drugs, teen pregnancy, and violence. We are still listening. A lot.

We might have a little more wisdom that comes with age and experience. Respect, cooperation, and kindness never go out of style. Even though the issues are different, people are still the same in many ways. Bullying will never be acceptable. Good grades are still a good goal.

Parents need to be in charge and willing to make decisions that are best for the family as a whole and for each individual, even if the decision isn’t popular. Even though they rant and rave, kids might secretly be glad that it’s not up to them to decide. We are still listening. A lot.

Teens will use manipulation against parents. They want us to feel guilty for not giving them what they want. They want us to feel like they think they are unloved. They want us to think that they are sure we don’t care.

Nothing could be further from the truth. We care enough to watch out for them and help them make good choices, even when they are at an age when it’s difficult for them to think through consequences clearly. We care enough to know when to draw the line. We care enough not to be swayed by their words and behavior. We care enough not to be persuaded by anger or manipulation because it’s not in their best interest. We care enough to know that deep down they know we love them enough to stand with them, even though they think it’s against them.

So when your child says you never listen, remind them of a few things. Remind them that you care and that you love them. Remind them you are listening very closely to what they are saying. Remind them that listening and agreeing are not the same thing. And remind them that you care enough to know the difference.

Donna Howard is a mother of ten children—yes, ten—a grandmother of six, and has served as a foster parent. She has a bachelor’s degree in clarinet performance and composition. She teaches elementary music methods to education majors and owns her own band instrument repair business.

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