Do you listen to what your teen isn’t saying? (part 2 in a 3-part series)

Apr 24, 2019

[Continued from Part I. This is Part 2 in a 3-part series)

Part I: Are you Really Listening 

In part one of this series, we discussed that it is imperative for adults to do three things when speaking with teens:

(1)  Know that listening is an investment.

(2)  Be willing + open to listen

(3)  Pay attention to what they are saying AND doing.

I want to pause on that last point.

You must LISTEN to what they are doing.

Say wha? You must listen to what they aren’t saying, and you do that by paying attention to what they are doing, aka tuning into the non-verbal cues. Often an invitation to connect with your child doesn’t come with words, it comes through their actions and behavior, their body language and their facial expressions. Let’s break this down.

Actions and Behaviors: It isn’t what your teen says that always makes the impression; it’s what he does. Withdrawing, slamming doors, rolling eyes are all specific ways to send you a message. Typically, the message with those behaviors is “leave me alone” or “I’m annoyed.” It’s also a cue that this is not the time to have a conversation. Rather, give them a little space and circle back later to check in with a, “I just wanted to check in to see if you are okay.” They may say, “sure.” And, maybe they are okay. If your spidey senses say otherwise, let them know that you noticed them slamming the door, and it seemed like something was on their mind. Then, be willing to see what happens.

If you are already talking and your child shows these behaviors, it’s a cue you aren’t listening. Step away from the conversation for a while and circle back. If you keep pushing the conversation, your child will feel that his needs don’t matter and will continue to shut down conversation.

Also, with the behavioral cues, look for mood swings. I’m talking about the above and beyond the typical tween-to- teen emotional roller coaster mood swings. For example, if your even-tempered teen cries or storms off in a huff when you ask about her day at school, she is telling you nonverbally that she is stressed about something in her life. You can check in to say, “it seems like you are upset. If you need someone to listen, I’m here.”

And, then be willing to wait for your child to come to you.

Another common behavior is hanging around. Adolescents often have a difficult time initiating conversations with their parents. Rather than engaging you directly, they sort of hang around in the background.

Let’s say you are in the kitchen playing on your iPod or fussing with food, and your child isn’t rushing off to do something else. He’s just there. This is an opportunity - and often an invitation - to connect. Stop fussing with the food and put down the iPod, because, wait for it, your tween-to-teen is signaling that he wants to spend time with you. It is not natural for kids to come right out and say, “I need your time,” so they often hang around. Take the lead yourself and meet your child; your teen will probably be grateful for your effort.

Body Language: Your child sends off signals with his body. For example, if your child comes home with her head held low, the signal being sent is “I’m sad or depressed.” In this situation, you might say “Hey, it seems like you are a little down. Is there something you’d like to talk about?” If he says “no,” accept that and give him some space. Often in these situations with my own children I have said this, “Hey, it seems like something is going on. If you want to talk about now, I’m here for you. If you need some time alone, grab the “I need to work through this” kit (it’s our kit of tissues, dark chocolate and magazines) and we can talk later.”

Other common body languages in tween-to-teens include: Slumped body posture and poor eye contact. A kiddo that walks with slumped body posture may be feeling self-conscious, unhappy, stressed, or down. He or she might also feel fairly good but is just lost in thought about something else. The underlying meaning of this posture depends a great deal on what is normal for your child. If it is his or her common posture, stay engaged and in touch. Word of warning here, please don’t hover and absolutely don’t tell your teen to “sit up straight” or “why are you standing like that.” Statements like that will put your child on the defensive and will thwart your efforts to be available for casual conversation.

Eye contact is another one of the body language cues. In general, teens struggle with making eye contact, especially with adults - even parents. They are still developing their self-confidence and figuring out their comfort level with adults. Because of that, they may avoid eye contact. Rather than let your suspicions grown or feel he or she is being disrespectful, find opportunities talk side-by-side. Go for a walk, play a game, take a drive in the car, just about any kind of activity where you are close enough to talk but not facing the added pressure of talking face-to-face.

Another component of non-verbal cues is...

Facial Expressions. Like body language, facial expressions are a readable way for your tween-to-teen to share what he or she is feeling or thinking. Your adolescent can recognize the core feelings of happiness, anger, frustration, sadness on another person’s face. However, your child may not realize that those emotions come through on his own face. For example, if your kiddo has a blank stare or bored expression while volunteering, or sitting in class, it is unlikely that his supervisor to consider giving him more responsibility. However, your child may not even realize that is what he or she is conveying.

It’s important for you to read your child’s expressions. And, to help your kiddo do the same. Sometimes, especially for verbal processors, we may not always understand non-verbals - especially facial expressions. Test your own non-verbal IQ by examining what emotion or thought the faces (see the download) is feeling. What made you choose that? What are the other emotions/thoughts that this expression could also convey? There is no right or wrong answer with this activity. The takeaway is to raise your awareness of how you perceive certain expressions and to look at other perspectives.

As we wrap up this lesson I want to summarize with this. You’ve likely heard the saying “You have two ears and one mouth, so you can listen twice as much as talk.” It’s a great saying; however, I’d like to switch it up. We are talking about really listening in this lesson so I’d say, “you have two ears, two eyes and one mouth so you can listen four times as much as you talk.” If you want to feel heard and improve communication with your adolescent, listen to your child. Listen, really listen to them with your ears and then your eyes first before you talk.

Again, we will continue this series on “Are You Really Listening?” Until then, it’s your turn. In the comments below, I’d love to hear from you...

  • How can you listen
  • What are the body cues your teens shows?

With appreciation,