If you’re a parent or caregiver for young people, you’ve probably run into a communication issue at some point — or are concerned you might in the future.
Active listening is a skill that can help you connect more effectively with your kids and help them feel heard and be more willing to talk about difficult things. It’s a skill that anyone who regularly interacts with youth can benefit from — and it’s more needed now than ever.
How the pandemic affected the mental health of kids and teens
Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that, in 2021, more than a third of high school students dealt with poor mental health and 44% regularly felt sad or hopeless.
Even before the pandemic began, CDC research found that 1 in 5 kids had a mental health disorder but only 20% of those individuals received care from a mental health specialist. Access to mental health care was already difficult for many families before COVID-19, and in the past few years the shortage of mental health care providers for kids and teens has only gotten more profound.
How can active listening help youth mental health?
Changing the way you listen to your kid may not seem like a big deal — something so small to do in the face of so many serious mental health issues among youth — but it can have a big impact.
Active listening involves seeking to understand your kid or teen’s perspective rather than trying to jump in and fix things for them. It allows them independence and agency while helping you keep them safe and support them.
It also demonstrates that you recognize and care about your child’s feelings, plus it can be a helpful tool for slowing down difficult conversations instead of escalating them into an argument.
“It can feel intimidating to ask your child about mental health struggles, but overall research shows the use of active listening and validation to communicate about hard situations is an important protective factor for a child’s mental health,” says Jessica Jenness, a clinical child psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
Active listening is helpful in everyday situations as well as more serious ones. It’s a skill you can use regularly, for issues big and small, to show your kids that you are there for them.
How to actively listen
“Like many caregiving skills, active listening is easier said than done. It can often feel unnatural or even robotic at first. However, with practice, caregivers almost universally report many benefits when using active listening during conversations,” Jenness says.
“For example, caregivers highlight that reflecting back what they're hearing oftentimes leads to their child sharing more information than usual, increasing their connection and closeness, and feeling more like a team working together on an issue,” she says.
There are a few steps to active listening:
- Notice when your child is stressed or emotional, even at a low level. “While active listening may be useful when emotions are high, it can be helpful to practice active listening when your child is only mildly distressed, or even during calm conversations,” Jenness says.
- Let them know you’re here to listen and give them space to talk. Examples of what to say: “You look pretty worried, do you want to talk about what’s going on?” or “It sounds like you had a rough day at school, I'm here to listen if you'd like to talk.”
- Listen to understand them, paraphrase their words back to them and validate their emotions. Paraphrasing gives them an opportunity to clarify or correct if you misunderstood something. Validating their emotions shows you care about what they’re feeling. If they aren’t being forthcoming about emotions, you can try guessing. Example of what to say: “OK, so what I’m hearing is that Sarah didn’t invite you to the sleepover this weekend — that’s really disappointing! I could see how you’d feel pretty sad about that and left out.”
- Ask if they want help solving the issue or coping with it. Examples of what to say: “This is a tough one ... do you have any ideas for what you’d like to do about this?” or “I can see this has been really stressful. Would you like any help thinking it through?” or “I’d love to think of ways we could work on this together- what do you think?”
Approaches to avoid during active listening
Many of us are “fixers” who want to fix problems for our loved ones so they don’t have to suffer. Or maybe we’re afraid of a problem and want to fix it before it gets worse. But many situations can’t be immediately fixed, and swooping in to save your child from their problems doesn’t usually help them.
“Moving quickly to ‘fix it’ strategies gives children the message that negative emotions are not OK to have or talk about, which may inadvertently lead to less communication about hard situations or emotions over time,” Jenness explains.
Here are a few “fix it” strategies to avoid:
- Downplaying a situation: “Don’t worry, it’ll be OK!”
- Immediately problem-solving: “Well, why don’t you just ask another friend to hang out?”
- Immediately distracting with something fun: “Why don’t you go play that new game you were telling me about. That will make you feel better.”
- Using stressful situations as teaching moments: “See, this is why we need to be more organized.”
- Taking another person’s side: “Well, I can see why your teacher would be annoyed by that.”
- Criticizing how your child is feeling: “You’re being dramatic, this isn't a big deal.”
Instead, focus on validating the difficulty of the situation and how your child feels. For example: “Yes, that does sound hard to deal with. I understand why you’re upset about it.”
Jenness points out that actively listening and validating your child’s emotions doesn’t mean agreeing with them or justifying their behavior if they did something wrong. You can actively listen and still set boundaries on what they are and aren’t allowed to do.
For example, if your teen is upset that you won’t let them stay out past curfew to go to a party, show you understand how they’re feeling but remind them that you created the curfew to keep them safe. Offer to drive them to the party and pick them up so they can still go and have fun but also be home in time.
The bottom line
Actively listening to young people and validating how they feel is important for creating open lines of communication with them. Active listening strategies can be used in any situation, from small things to serious things, and it can help strengthen your relationship.
“Active listening and validating your child’s emotions in a calm, nonjudgmental and normalizing way is an effective strategy to create a safe space for communication with your child,” Jenness says. “Putting in the time and effort to slow down conversations and more fully understand your child’s thoughts and feelings will provide a solid foundation for problem-solving and working as a team to address challenges.”