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Study Suggests Good Listening May Help Your Teen Open Up Emotionally

Vulnerable teen talks with mom

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Key Takeaways

  • Teens are more willing to talk to parents who are good listeners.
  • Good listening involves trying to see things from your child's perspective.
  • Aim to be non-judgmental, patient, and curious when you listen.

As a parent, when your teen discloses unexpected information, it’s hard to know how to respond quickly and effectively. New research out of Reading University published in the journal Experimental Child Psychology has shown that when parents use engaged and active listening, teens feel more willing to open up and talk to them.

Good parental listening was also shown to improve teens' general sense of well-being, including their self-esteem. But what exactly constitutes “good” listening? When it comes to teens, the aim of the game is to try and see things from their perspective. Listen to understand, value their willingness to share, respond with open-ended questions, help them to problem solve, but don't give your advice unless it's asked for.

About the Study

In the first study of its kind, researchers from Reading University showed recordings of parent/teen interactions to over one thousand 13–16-year-olds. A total of four recordings were shown to participants. Two separate scenarios each with two different parental responses. Parental responses focus on the listening skills of parents, not on the final outcome of the teen's disclosure.

One scenario showed the teen sharing that they had tried vaping and in another, the teen disclosed feeling hurt and rejected by peers because they declined to join their friends in vaping. For each scenario, one recording showed “good” parent listening skills and one showed “moderate” listening skills. “Bad” listening skills were not included in the study.

After watching the recordings, study participants were asked to answer a questionnaire about how they would feel and respond in similar situations based on the parental listening skills shown in the recordings. 

Results indicate that teens are more willing to open up honestly and emotionally about their activities when they can anticipate their parents will actively listen to them. Teens also said it would improve their self-esteem and overall well-being if their parent was a good listener.

What are “Good” Listening Skills?

Dr. Netta Weinstein, PhD, psychologist and lead researcher, says that good listening isn’t just about being quiet while your kids talk. Good listening goes much deeper. To make it easier to understand, she breaks it down into three basic components.

Netta Weinstein, PhD

Good listening also involves conveying warmth [and] that [you] are currently valuing the child and appreciate the child’s willingness to share

— Netta Weinstein, PhD

Attention

Most of us have learned about this step in the workplace. It applies to your kids just as much as it does to your colleagues. 

  • Don’t interrupt. Allow space and silence for your kids to talk. 
  • Maintain eye contact.
  • Avoid distractions (put your phone away and try where possible to talk when you can focus solely on your child).

Positive Intention

This is where it gets a little deeper and these steps are crucial to building trust with your teen. 

  • Speak in a warm and loving tone of voice, even in simple responses such as “hmmm.”
  • Keep your facial expression and body language open, gentle, and accepting. 
  • Acknowledge their willingness to share with comments such as “thank you for sharing that with me”, “that must have been hard for you to share”, or “I’m so glad to talk about this with you”. 

“Good listening also involves conveying warmth [and] that [you] are currently valuing the child and appreciate the child’s willingness to share,” explains Dr. Weinstein. “[Show] that [you] are listening to understand and learn about [your] child, rather than to collect data to make judgments or decide on punishments.”

Comprehension

Comprehension means to show you understand what your child is saying (even if you don’t agree with it). Although comprehension wasn’t specifically looked at in this study, Dr. Weinstein says it is a huge part of real-life conversations and offers the following tips.

  • Check the accuracy of your understanding with your teen with a phrase such as, “Am I right in understanding that…”
  • Show your teen value and affection. Thank them for trusting you with the information and let them know you love them, even if you do feel mad.
  • Avoid harsh judgments. Comments such as “You were silly to do that” or “I can’t even look at you right now” should be avoided. 
  • Look at the situation from your teen's perspective and use a response such as “I can see that you tried/felt/thought…”

Why Your Reaction is So Important


Remember that most teens learn life lessons through their mistakes. They need a supportive place to talk these lessons out, not harsh judgment. “This is a time when teens are balancing newfound independence with continuing reliance on parents. It can feel vulnerable or scary to share,” says Dr. Weinstein.

Dr. Andrew Barnes, MD, developmental and behavioral pediatric physician, suggests you respond in a non-judgemental, calm, patient, and curious way. This shows your teen that you are listening. They are then more likely to open up to you and share their thoughts, feelings, mistakes, and experiences. Furthermore, listening to them may help boost their self-esteem and feelings of overall well-being.

Dr. Weinstein adds, “Consistent listening can help teens know what to expect from their parents when they self-disclose—that they can feel (relatively) safe and are still loved.”

That’s not to say it will be easy. When your teen drops a bombshell of a confession, it can be extremely hard to remain calm. Dr. Barnes suggests that if you don’t know how to respond, start with an open-ended question.

“Ask open-ended questions to gauge their expectations, like ‘I wonder how you thought I'd react?’ or ‘How do you think {other positive adult they respect, like a coach, teacher, or parent} would respond if someone your age told them something like this?’” suggests Dr. Barnes.

But don’t stop the questions there. Involve your teen in finding a resolution. This helps develop their problem-solving skills. A suitable question might be, "What ideas have you had about what you might do next about this?"

Dr. Barnes advises that before you offer any advice, ask permission and wait for an invitation. You may be surprised how often teens do want your advice, but offering it before they are ready may see it fall on deaf ears. 

What To Do If You Slip Up

We are all human and, as such, we all make mistakes. If you do lose your temper or respond harshly, Dr. Barnes suggests you apologize, “A genuine apology goes a long way, like, ‘I messed up when I yelled at you about that, and I wish I'd have stayed calm and listened to your perspective.’”

Andrew Barnes, MD

A genuine apology goes a long way, like, “I messed up when I yelled at you about that, and I wish I'd have stayed calm and listened to your perspective.”

— Andrew Barnes, MD

“Avoid the word ‘but’ [in your apology],” adds Dr. Barnes. “Avoid blaming the teen for the slip-up, because that undermines the opportunity to make real amends and reconnect with each other.”

When you feel calm and ready, you can let your teen know you are ready to listen to their perspective. Dr. Barnes suggests that for teens, this might be best done via text or a note. This gives them the chance to also gather their emotions before trying again. 

What This Means For you

It can be extremely hard to maintain a calm exterior when your teen comes to you with unexpected information. But remember, it is also very hard for teens to open up and admit their challenges, fears, and mistakes. 

Trying to see things from their perspective can help keep the lines of trust and communication open.

If your teen is not talking to anyone and seems to be withdrawn, look for signs of depression or anxiety. You might like to seek professional help if you are concerned about your child’s mental health.

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Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Weinstein N, Huo A, Itzchakov G. Parental listening when adolescents self-disclose: a preregistered experimental study. J Exp Child Psychol. 2021;209:105178. doi:10.1016/j.jecp.2021.105178

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