Are you a good listener? There’s an art to holding your tongue.

I’ve been treating myself of late to watching previous seasons of The Crown (a Netflix drama) in anticipation for the new series about to air. In one episode, the Queen was bemoaning to her mother, the fact that she felt ill-equipped to converse with the many educated people she was required to meet. She acknowledged a desire to be able to talk more intelligently about matters of science and philosophy, instead of being confined to talking about dogs and horses. Her mother’s response was to say, “You know when to keep your mouth shut; that’s more important than anything.” The conversation is then interrupted by the announcement that the Prime Minister wants to speak with her, to which her mother rudely quips, “You can smile politely while he drones on.” 

When it comes to talking with my own children, I confess that I find keeping my mouth shut extremely hard to do. It’s not a skill I naturally possess. For me, it requires much effort to refrain from speaking; it takes mental energy and self control. To confine my remarks to just asking questions or saying things like, “I can see this is hard for you” without being able to offer advice or an alternative point of view, feels unnatural…like I haven’t finished my sentence. My natural inclination is to speak. To offer wisdom, to tell a story of my own experience, to try and fix the problem, to say something…anything. I can empathise with the Queen’s frustration in being expected to keep her mouth shut, or appear to hold no opinion. 

There are many times when my teens just want to vent; to say everything that is going on inside of them, out loud. They don’t want an opinion, they don’t want me to solve anything – they just want me to listen. Neither do they want me to smile politely while they drone on; they can spot a fake a mile away. They want me to be a genuine listener. 

Of late, I’ve been getting things horribly wrong. All too often, I have misjudged intentions and moods, and jumped in to saying something, only to find, I’ve fallen into another ditch – the one I had climbed out of, hours earlier. Someone has burst into my kitchen with issues and angst, ready to give me a long spiel about how ‘life sucks’, and how it’s the other person’s fault, or teachers really have no clue how to teach; usual teenage complaints. However, the moment I’ve gone to offer advice, or a counter point of view – rolling eyes, facial expressions that clearly convey annoyance, a quip about never understanding, then a swift exit. I’m left with that awful feeling that I’ve messed up again. I ask myself, “What did I say that was so wrong?”

In a recent seminar I attended, “Surviving the Rollercoaster of Adolescence” the speaker Chris Hudson offered up 5 parenting traps to avoid, and then 5 things to do. This list is a good prompt for any parent feeling like they’re always falling into common relational traps. 

1. Don’t take the bait.

2. Don’t escalate

3. Don’t be blackmailed

4. Don’t take it personally

5. Don’t give up

6. Consistently apply

7. Ask, “Are you okay?”

8. Ask them questions

9. Get curious

10. Keep your opinions

To be a good listener is definitely a skill one needs in ones toolkit to parent teens well. I’ve learned from experience that it is wise not to “poke the bear” and to exercise self control for the sake of maintaining a good relationship. While I am entitled to hold an opinion, there is wisdom and strength in being able to wait for the invitation to share it. I’ve found too, that if I’ve demonstrated a willingness to listen, they are more inclined to allow me into the conversation, with an openness to hearing my point of view.