This article is part of a 4-part series we are writing about building a better relationship with your teen.
Why Your Teen Doesn't Want to Listen and How to Change it
I often hear parents say, “They won’t listen to me, but they’ll listen to their friend or the internet.”
I’ve heard some parents say, “I’m the parent! This is my household, they need to follow the rules and do what I say.”
And we all know how well that works...
Why is it that teens will listen to strangers, friends, or siblings instead of their parents?
If we understand why, perhaps that would help parents do better with their teens?
We all have a few people in our life, who, if they were to give us advice, we would deeply consider it and think about how we would apply it into our life.
On the other hand, we all probably have a few people in our life who, if they were to give us advice, we would nod politely, thank them for their perspective, and immediately forget about what they have shared.
Why is that?
What separates the people we listen to and the people we’d rather not get advice from?
What do they do differently that makes us have such a different reaction?
And more importantly, how does that relate to why some teens don’t listen to their parents?
Seek First to Understand
Let’s imagine that I want to take a vacation and go to New York and I talk to my two friends, Alex and Taylor, about it.
Conversation with Alex
Brandon: Hey I’m thinking about taking a vacation and going to New York!
Alex: Well, you should buy tickets soon, they always get more expensive during the holidays.
Alex: Make sure you go check out Museum Hack, they do really cool museum tours.
Alex: Oh! And you definitely want to check out a Broadway show or Central Park!
Alex: And, also, did you know the cronut was invented in New York? If I were you, I’d make sure I’d try that as well.
Conversation with Taylor
Brandon: Hey I’m thinking about taking a vacation and going to New York!
Taylor: When do you plan to go?
Brandon: Probably sometime in March next year.
Taylor: Ooh Spring. What made you want to take a vacation in New York?
Brandon: I just realized that I really need to slow down and take a break. I was actually even thinking about taking a train to New York instead of flying. I wanted to enjoy the trip and create space to think and reflect.
Taylor: So it sounds like the goal is more to create space rather than to actually vacation in New York.
Brandon: Yeah. I kind of picked New York because it’s just on the other side of the country, I might end up changing the destination. I think I’m wanting to enjoy seeing the landscapes across the US more than anything else.
Taylor: Ah, so the nature-scapes in the various states are more what you’re looking for.
Brandon: Yeah! Maybe I’ll check out Yellowstone, Rushmore, find a destination in the Rockies, or see the Grand Canyon.
Taylor: Were you planning to backpack or stay on a train most of the time?
Brandon: I haven’t decided that yet. What do you think?
What do you notice between the two examples?
What do you notice with how I reacted based on their answers?
Here’s what I see:
Jumped in with a response before understanding the goals I had for my trip
Gave me advice before seeing if I wanted advice to begin with
Ended up talking four times more and I did (66 words vs. 15 words)
Asked questions to understand the situation more
Didn’t give any advice, but led to a point where I asked for advice anyway
Ended up talking almost half as much as I did (66 words vs. 127 words)
What ended up happening?
I’m much more likely to listen to Taylor over Alex.
If that was a real life conversation, I would feel like Alex was more interested in being heard for his experiences than truly helping me. It probably would make me want avoid going to Alex for advice in the future.
For Taylor, I would probably feel much more understood and trust that his ideas would apply specifically to my situation. I would be far more likely to go to Taylor for advice in the future.
Too often, when I work with parents and students, parents are filled with assumptions about what their child “should” want. I see parents jump in to give advice to solve a problem without first understanding what’s going on in the mind of their child; I see them often interrupting without letting their child have a chance to speak or explain themselves.
It’s rare that I hear a parent take the time to uncover and hear the story from their child’s perspective first like how Taylor did.
In my example, it seems like what I wanted was a trip to New York, but only after Taylor asked questions to understand the situation more, did we realize that it was much more complex.
There’s a quote by Dr Stephen Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:
“If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”
Jumping in to give advice without asking questions is the exact opposite of what you want to do.
If you want to be able to influence others with your advice, especially with a teenage child, getting good at understanding their perspective before voicing yours will be one of the most valuable tools you can have.
This requires you to believe that 1) your child has different perspective about the situation 2) their perspective is equally valid as yours and 3) hearing their perspective is necessary in order to solve whatever problem is in front of them.
Mastering “seek first to understand” will also help you give better advice as well.
Giving Advice after “Seeking to Understand”
Going back to my example about my trip to New York.
Let's say that Alex has lived in New York for 20 years and is also a world traveler who has visited over 50 countries.
If the goal of my vacation was to enjoy the experience of traveling across the country and New York was simply my end-point, I would probably care more about Alex’s experiences as a world traveler more.
If the goal of my vacation was to experience New York from the perspective of a local, then I would probably care more about Alex’s experiences as a New York resident more.
This is why it’s so important to understand the other person’s goals first, otherwise you may end up frustrated, thinking you’ve given helpful advice when you may have completely missed it!
I remember as a teen, if I didn’t do well on a quiz or a test, my dad would predictably say, “That’s why you shouldn’t play so many video games and should study more instead.”
“Study more” was the one-size-fits-all solution that my dad often repeated, but it wasn’t always helpful because sometimes, my situation was different. Sometimes, I didn’t do well on tests because of silly mistakes I could have avoided, or because I didn’t get enough sleep the night before so my brain just wasn’t working well.
It didn’t matter that my dad was the top of his class when he was in school, or the fact that he's older and wiser. My dad may have felt like he had the “correct” advice, but without understanding the real issue, it made me want to not only ignore his advice, but it also made me not want to talk to him in general because it seemed like he never took the time to understand my struggles (this is why, as a teen, I would say, “you just don’t get it” and roll my eyes and walk away).
On the other hand, if my dad took the time to understand first, the interaction might have been much different:
Dad: “Why do you think you didn’t do well on the test?”
Brandon: “I don’t think I got enough sleep the night before and I had a test during my first period of school so it was really hard to focus.”
Dad: “Oh, that’s too bad, sorry to hear that. Sounds like not getting enough sleep really affect you.”
Dad: “What do you plan to do about it?”
Brandon: “I’ll probably make sure I sleep sooner the previous day so I won’t be as groggy if I have a test first thing in the morning.”
Dad: “Do you need help with studying or anything?
Brandon: “No… I should be fine”
Something I often see when working with families is when the teen shares a problem, the parent usually jumps and to say something like, “This has a simple solution, just do XYZ!” without asking any questions and with a sense of frustration that their child can’t do something that seems, to the parent, so obvious and simple.
And that is the purpose of this article.
Taking a vacation to New York isn’t always as simple as, “Oh go see a Broadway show and Central Park” because that might not be the goal.
Doing better on a test is not always as simple as “study more” because there might be a completely different reason for not doing well.
A teen might not be procrastinating simply because they lack discipline, they might find their work boring, too difficult, or they are too physically tired.
And of course, in some cases, it is straightforward and simple -- but you won’t know if you’re right unless you ask.
Giving advice before you understand the situation is like shooting without aiming.
So, why is it that teens listen to the internet, siblings, or friends more?
Well, friends usually listen before they give advice. Usually, their siblings “get” the situations already so they don’t have to explain as much. And the internet allows them to find the kind of advice that fits their exact situation, they can ignore bad advice on the internet and try the ones they think will work.
A lot of parents tell us, “Oh my teen will trust you because you’re closer to their age!” and that’s partially true.
What I think is more true is that we really take time to understand students before we tell them anything, and in most cases, we actually don’t give advice at all.
We find that most students, if you ask them the right questions to understand the situation, if you challenge them to solve their own problem (“What are you going to do about it?” “What do you think you could try differently?”), they end up coming to their own solutions that are just as effective as suggestions we might give.
If you want your teen to listen to you more, ask yourself, “Have I taken the time to hear their side of the story?”
If the answer is “No,” it’s likely that you are making some assumptions about the situation and will end up giving advice that isn’t very helpful and also end up pushing them away.
If you want to give your teen advice, your goal should be first to understand more about their situation, what their challenges are, and what they think about it. Then, once you understand, you’ll be able to ask questions to help them figure out what to do, and maybe, they realize that they want your advice.
The better you are at doing this, the less likely your teen is to nod their head and say, “Yeah. Yeah. Ok. Ok” and forget in 2 seconds. It will be more likely that they consider your words rather than write you off.
Master the skill of listening and understanding and you’ll find yourself understanding your teen more while also gaining more ability to influence them.
Want to see 3 more examples our team drafted of how you can understand your teen instead of making assumptions?
Get the free PDF here.
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Stay tuned for the final part of this series on "How to Build a Better Relationship with Your Teen"!
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