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Attentive Listening Helps Teens Share Their Challenges, Study Finds

A mom talks with her teenage daughter on a sofa.

Le Club Symphonie / Michael Crockett / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • New research shows that teens are more likely to open up when parents practice attentive listening.
  • Experts recommend demonstrating attentive listening by maintaining eye contact and avoiding distractions, such as phones.
  • Parents may also be able to connect more deeply with their teens by considering the timing of serious conversations.

From grades and friendships to heartbreaks and hook-ups, there are a lot of important experiences that happen in a teenager’s life. Figuring out how to get teenagers to open up about what they’re going through gives parents a chance to offer guidance and support, and a new study in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology has found evidence for a technique that works: attentive listening.

The researchers asked kids between the ages of 13 and 16 to watch various video recordings of a parent listening to a teen share something important. The results showed that the video of a parent listening attentively, rather than in a distracted way, made teens feel better about opening up.

Here’s what the research shows about how attentive listening can help parents build better relationships with their teens.

The Study

For this study, researchers from the University of Reading and the University of Haifa worked with around 1,000 teens living in the U.K. The participants included similar numbers of boys and girls, along with three people of another gender. There was also a roughly even split of people age 13, 14, 15, and 16.

The participants watched videos in which a parent listened attentively or aloofly to a teen sharing something important, such as admitting to vaping or feeling alienated by friends. They then answered a survey about how they would have felt if they were the teen in that particular situation, as well as how likely they felt the teen in the video would be to share other things with their parent in the future.

Jeannine Jannot, PhD

This study provides a jumping off place from which to offer practical, helpful, and potentially game-changing advice to parents who are struggling with the ups and downs of raising teenagers.

— Jeannine Jannot, PhD

After analyzing the results, the researchers found that videos of parents listening attentively made teens feel like they’d experience a greater sense of well-being from sharing personal experiences. Attentive listening also made teens more likely to express intent to open up in the future.

“The investigation into the relationship between how well a parent listens to their teen and how willing a teen is to openly share information with them informs how we advise parents to build a strong connection with their teens based on a foundation of honesty and trust,” says Jeannine Jannot, PhD, a school psychologist, college psychology instructor, and author of “The Disintegrating Student: Struggling but Smart, Falling Apart, and How to Turn It Around.”

She adds: “This study provides a jumping off place from which to offer practical, helpful, and potentially game-changing advice to parents who are struggling with the ups and downs of raising teenagers.”

Why Attentive Listening Matters to Teens

Experts say that the findings of the latest research aren’t surprising, but help to further validate the guidance they often share with parents on how to get teens to open up.

“That feeling of being listened to is a key emotional need for adolescents,” says Gail Gutierrez, LCSW, manager of outpatient services at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California. “They are individuating and separating from their parents, however still need the attention, support, and love from their parents. When parents listen attentively, teens feel that their parents are attuned to them—they feel felt, or feel seen and heard.”

The research also shows that parents may need to be mindful of not getting too caught up in today’s busy, always-connected lifestyle in order to help foster a deeper bond with their children.

Gail Gutierrez, LCSW

When parents listen attentively, teens feel that their parents are attuned to them—they feel felt, or feel seen and heard.

— Gail Gutierrez, LCSW

“When a parent is only half listening, checking their phone, making dinner, listening to the news, the teen feels dismissed and insignificant. They will not open up to their parents because the parent is sending the message ‘I don't really care, I'm not listening,’” explains Darby Fox, LCSW, child and adolescent family therapist and author of “Rethinking Your Teenager: Shifting from Control and Conflict to Structure and Nurture to Raise Accountable Young Adults.

Fox points out that the teenage years are a time in life when people are especially sensitive to how others—including their parents—hear and perceive them.

“Teens are very self-aware and sensitive to judgment so anything they pick up on that might make them feel unsure will cause them to shut-off. Teens want to be heard and they are delightfully engaging when they feel secure and safe from judgement,” she says.

Tips for Developing Attentive Listening Skills

It can be a challenge for parents to get their teens to share what’s going on in their lives. But don’t assume that’s because your child isn’t interested in talking to you, says Fox.

“It is a common mistake for parents to assume their adolescent does not want to communicate with them,” she says. “Teens gain a tremendous sense of self-worth from being heard by their parents because they want to show them they are good decision makers, thoughtful, and trying to do the right thing.”

Darby Fox, LCSW

Teens gain a tremendous sense of self-worth from being heard by their parents because they want to show them they are good decision makers, thoughtful, and trying to do the right thing.

— Darby Fox, LCSW

Instead, you may need to build up attentive listening skills that help a teen feel more comfortable opening up.

First, consider the timing of the conversation.

“Parents make the mistake of wanting to have a serious conversation when their teen is heading out the door or just in the car from school,” says Fox. “Timing is critical and parents can ask their adolescent when would be a great time to discuss whatever.”

When you do sit down to talk, give them your undivided attention, experts say. That means ignoring your phone, stepping away from other items on your to-do list, and focusing exclusively on them. Maintain gentle eye contact, try not to interrupt, and avoid immediately suggesting solutions or sharing your personal opinions on the issue.

Refraining from judgement and reaction can also help, adds Gutierrez.

“The parent would need to learn and practice self-regulation skills to maintain a calm, open demeanor when faced with content from their child that might be triggering for them,” she says.

Parents may also help their kids feel more comfortable talking by reflecting on their own teenage years.

“Before responding, take a moment to reflect on your teen years. Did you ever feel that way? Was there a time you wanted to be heard and your parents blew right past your explanation to punishment? If a parent can show empathy and reflection, then a teen feels heard. That does not mean there may not be consequences, but it means you understand your child unconditionally,” says Fox.

Keep in mind that getting a teen to open up can take time, and you might need to start talking about lighter topics before they’re willing to discuss more serious issues.

“Get in the habit of asking your teen what they think or if they saw certain things in the news, if they heard about a wild party, or other pieces of information that let them know you are in tune with their world,” says Fox.

In other words, start slow, be patient, and keep practicing attentive listening. Over time, your teen may eventually feel confident that opening up to you will help them feel better in the long run.

What This Means For You

Attentive listening can play a role in getting teens to open up about what’s going on in their lives, new research shows. This can help parents, who are often frustrated that their teens won’t talk, build deeper bonds with their children and get them to share important parts of their lives.

Start by asking teens about lighter topics, like what’s going on in the news, to gradually build their comfort level with talking to you. As you move into more serious discussions, ask your teen about when might be a good time to chat. Maintain eye contact, avoid judgmental reactions, and show empathy when your teen does open up to you to help them feel better about doing so.

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  1. Weinstein N, Huo A, Itzchakov G. Parental listening when adolescents self-disclose: a preregistered experimental study. J Exp Child Psychol. Published online Jun 2, 2021. doi:10.1016/j.jecp.2021.105178