The skill of listening to our kids, particularly teenagers in trouble, is a vital one. An old adage says you never learn a thing when you’re talking. If we can take the time to observe and listen to our teens, we can gain vital insights on who they are as people, what their current circumstances are and where they may be most struggling. But listening is not just an action — it is a skill. So what are the traits our teens most need from us as a listener?


You are the adult, and your teenager is the developing adolescent under the sway of rampant emotions and confusing situations. So first and foremost, stay calm. Stay serene. Being a parent is like wearing your heart as a bullseye on your chest, but it’s very beneficial here to shut off any alarmist tendency. If your child sees you staying rational and calm, no matter what they are telling you, it communicates to them that whatever they’re divulging isn’t catastrophic, isn’t life and death, that there are answers and solutions. One of the characteristics of teen reactions is the belief that the world hinges on the result of whatever ordeal they’re going through. But of course it rarely does, and you as the adult now have an opportunity to show that. Chances are emotions for your teen are already running hot; take this as a chance to be the cool, steady hand.

Suspend Judgment

Your teen may feel she is taking a risk in coming to you. Maybe she has something painful or embarrassing to divulge, maybe something upsetting. Whatever it is, it’s helpful here to suspend all judgment: it does no good, not in this scenario, and in fact could do a great deal of harm. Thinking of it as someone knocking on your door. Opening it and at the first word from the visitor on your threshold slamming the door shut certainly doesn’t communicate any welcome, and almost certainly transmits the message that the visitor should never come knocking again. So it is with your child. You want them to come to you with their problems, you want them to seek your counsel and you want to know what’s going on in their lives. You and your teen are well on the way to this kind of connection if in these moments you can suspend any instinct towards being judgmental.

Ask Questions

This may be the time you can press these things a bit, provided you do it in the right way. After all, a conversation is two-sided. A part of being a truly effective listener is asking the right questions. Show you are taking your teen seriously: process what they’ve told you and ask the pertinent questions to make sure you’ve got the details right. And, whether from guilt or fear, teenagers like all of us are prone to skating over important points, leaving things vague in places when it might not put them in the best light or when they feel they could be in trouble. It’s important as a listener to pick up on the moments when your teenager might be doing this, and to make it a point of fleshing out these details. Then you’ll have a fuller picture and they’ll hopefully feel better for having been more forthcoming.

There are certainly times when we need to be the ones to talk and the child be the one who listens. But those roles can and should be reversed at times. A big part of being a good parent starts with being a first-class listener, and bringing a mature, rational and tender perspective to your child’s concerns.