Know some teenagers? Then you probably know confusion. And frustration. Teenagers just don't seem to listen. But maybe they aren't the ones with the problem. Maybe YOU need to learn to listen well. #listen #fmfparty #parenting #communication #relationships

Know a teenager? Then you probably know confusion. And frustration. Teenagers just don’t seem to listen. But maybe they aren’t the ones with the problem. Maybe YOU need to learn to listen well.

Know some teenagers? Then you probably know confusion. And frustration. Teenagers just don't seem to listen. But maybe they aren't the ones with the problem. Maybe YOU need to learn to listen well. #listen #fmfparty #parenting #communication #relationships

Learn the Difference Between ‘With’ and ‘To’

You may have one of these confusing people in your life. They don’t come with operating instructions (neither do babies, for that matter). But you can learn to talk with them. Notice, I did NOT say ‘talk to them.’ Teenagers resent it when adults just want to talk TO them.

I’m guilty of enjoying the sound of my own voice spewing forth sage advice. Unfortunately, teenagers have mastered the skill of tuning out the world. And that includes you and your sage advice.

As an educator with 30 years of experience working with adolescents and a mom of two daughters who successfully (although not without trauma) made it through their teenage years, I’ve learned a thing or two about how to listen to a teenager.

1. Work to build relationships.

Even with your own kids. When our oldest was a teenager, we had ‘Coffee Fridays’ and I’d take her out for decaf. We’d flip through magazines while sipping our lattes. She turns 27 in a month, and we still have ‘Coffee Fridays.’ Our youngest loves outdoor adventures, so we started going on weekly hikes—which invariable led to some crazy (sometimes scary) adventures. We still plan at least one crazy adventure a year.

If the teenagers don’t belong to you, bake cookies and serve them warm with cold milk. Let them hang out in your kitchen in groups and munch. They might not talk to you right away, but they’ll remember the feeling of welcome.

2. Know their names.

Know some teenagers? Then you probably know confusion. And frustration. Teenagers just don't seem to listen. But maybe they aren't the ones with the problem. Maybe YOU need to learn to listen well. #listen #fmfparty #parenting #communication #relationships

I make it a point to know every students’ name by the end of the second day of school. Use their name when you talk to them. No one likes to hear themselves addressed as, “Hey, you!” Teenagers respect adults who take the time to get to know them. If you feel you’re not good at learning names, use mnemonic devices to help you.

3. Know when to hold ‘em.

Not the teenagers, your lips. Listen more than you talk. My daughter once told me, “You know Mom, I’m a teenager and we think we’re invincible.” I had chided her for not paying attention to traffic when she ran in the evenings along a busy road.

Teenagers seek autonomy from authority figures (anyone who looks older than them), so they don’t often want advice. They’d rather figure it out on their own. Ask questions about their thoughts:

  • Help me understand where you’re coming from when you say___.
  • What do YOU think should happen?
  • If you were a parent/teacher/coach, what would you do in this situation?

And then listen, really listen to their responses.

4. Ask the right questions.

I know. It seems impossible. Especially when all of your questions receive a grunt for a reply. Ask unique questions that require thought, and then stay quiet and listen. Replace “How was your day?” with things like:

  • If you could do over ten minutes of today, which ten minutes would you choose?
  • Name the three coolest things that happened to you today.
  • If you could forget one thing that you learned in school today, what would it be?

The teenager in your life might even explain the why behind their choices—especially if you make noncommittal murmuring sounds and remain quiet.

5. They’ll make brash statements just to see your reaction.

Learn to reply noncommittally with, “Is that a fact?” or “Tell me more.” Teenagers want to know that you listen, and their brash statements aren’t an invitation for a lecture. They are an invitation to listen.

6. Listen for the subtext of what they say.

Teenagers have mastered the art of understatement without understanding what it means. A student once told the principal that her boyfriend was rough. His response? A lecture on why she should break up with the boy.

She thought she had revealed to the principal that her boyfriend had raped her. Years later she finally asked the principal why he hadn’t done anything about her confession (the boyfriend also attended the same school).

Listen and ask questions. Don’t lecture.

Learn to listen to the subtext of a teenager's conversation. Their life might depend on it. #communication #parenting #teenager Click To Tweet

7. Listen actively.

Keep your phone in your pocket. Make the teenager the focus of your attention. Stay in the moment, and don’t start planning out your rebuttal, response, or sage advice. Nod. Murmur encouragement. React to what they say in an appropriate way. They can sniff out a poser faster than you can say ‘Malarkey.’

8. Know about bubbles.

Don’t invade a teenager’s personal space. Know how big their bubble is and respect it. Some of my students will say, “Mrs. Ojeda, I need a hug,” and I happily comply (a side-hug). Let them ask. Stay out of their face.

9. Anything above a calm, soft voice sounds like yelling.

Seriously. In a tense situation, even a calm, adamant voice sounds like a yell. Refer to rule 3. Keep calm, and listen.

10. Surround your conversations with prayer.

I send up constant silent prayers when I talk to teenagers. Prayers that I listen well, that I hear the subtext and ask the right questions, that I don’t lose my temper or spout well-meaning advice. If, and only if the Holy Spirit prompts me do I ever ask if I can pray with a teenager.

What about you? Do you have any tips for listening to teenagers?


  1. They say that children should be seen
    and never should be heard;
    remembering myself as a teen,
    there is not truer word.
    I had overweening self-regard
    that would make a Roman wince,
    and could have easily starred
    in a real-life “Student Prince.”
    And yet, I thought that I had class,
    the Western world’s epitome;
    but I was just a horse’s a**
    of proud humility.
    I gloried in my noble bearing
    but what I said was not worth hearing.
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser recently posted…Your Dying Spouse 680 – God of Love and Pain {FMF}My Profile

    1. “They” in this context is a ridiculous Victorian concept which has proven to be a stifling, unemtional, anti-learning and abusive concept. Children should be heard so they can express who they are, how they feel, and a loving person can mirror and understand them. I cringed at those words and just couldnt not respond.

  2. This is a wonderfully rich post, Anita! As a former high school teacher, youth leader, and parent whose little ones are inching closer to the teen years every day, these tips really resonated with me! Sharing this everywhere to help the parents I know and love!

  3. Wow, I really love this post. I’m saving it too because I need to read it again and again. I think the tips are important but the one that stayed with me the most was: Listen for the subtext of what they say. Sometimes we are so busy or so distracted that we listen but we are not paying attention. I need to work on this. Thanks so much for sharing!

  4. Love this! So helpful. I realized recently how much impact I had on one of my church teens. She is so devastated to see me leave and I wish I could make it better for her. Yet our little coffee dates etc have made a difference to her faith life!

  5. putting the phone away and looking at my son … if I do that, he knows I am listening to him full well. Anything less and “i could provoke him to wrath (at at least annoyance)” And I’d rather listen then provoke.

    I’ve noticed the same in other teens. Listen completely, not with a half ear.

  6. I love this post! I think it can apply to three-year-olds, too. 😉 Plus I cannot believe I am almost 27…and I love our Coffee Fridays tradition SO much. Here’s to Christmastime and Coffee Fridays every week of vacation!

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Anita Ojeda

Anita Ojeda juggles writing with teaching high school English and history. When she's not lurking in odd places looking for rare birds, you can find her camping with her kids, adventuring with her husband or mountain biking with her students.

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