It starts out so innocently. You approach your child or teen because there’s something you want to talk with them about. Maybe it’s a rule they’ve broken, maybe it’s something about their behavior, or maybe it’s a simple question about their day.

And then it happens. A defensive answer. A bit of attitude. A curt dismissal. The next thing you know, your blood pressure is on the rise. Your voice gets louder, their voice gets louder, and then…you’re screaming.

How did this even happen? You simply wanted to have a discussion with them and now tempers are flaring. The truth is, there’s a lot happening under the surface with your child or teen. There’s so much about the world they’re still trying to understand, and there are so many emotions jam-packed into the seemingly simplest of concepts. That’s why a straightforward conversation starter can escalate into a screaming match so quickly.

Even if this feels inevitable, there is something you can do about it. If you want to stop screaming and start talking, you need to engage in active listening.

What Is Active Listening?

When you think of listening, you probably don’t think of it as an active thing. To listen is to not talk, which seems to be more of a restraint from an action than an action itself, right?

Not necessarily.

When we listen passively, we don’t always pick up on what the other person is saying. We might miss out on important details and deeper meanings. Sure, maybe we think we’re getting the message (maybe we can even repeat their words back), but that doesn’t mean we’re internalizing the message and processing it.

The problem? So much of a message is what happens between the lines. Sometimes people say more with what they choose not to say. Sometimes there’s an underlying message that goes far beyond chosen words. And sometimes we just need to ask for clarification before we really understand the message.

None of us is a perfect communicator. We often need to clarify our position, explain what we mean, change our word choice when it becomes clear that what we said wasn’t exactly what we meant, and so on. If someone’s passively listening, none of this can happen.

Active listening is to listen with an engaged ear. It’s to give your undivided attention to the speaker, to give nonverbal and verbal cues that help them understand how you’re receiving the message (and that you are receiving the message), and to ask clarifying questions when necessary. When we actively listen, we can receive the message the speaker intends to send much more efficiently and effectively than when we passively listen.

How to Practice Active Listening

Active listening is easy to do if you’re willing to be mindful about the process. The first step? Remove all distractions.

Put down the phone.
Stop the activity you were doing.
Face the person speaking to you.
Give them your undivided attention.

By removing all distractions, you’re setting yourself up for the most effective listening possible. Maybe we don’t think that checking a notification on our phones or preparing a meal are all that distracting, but these things take our attention away from the speaker. And when that speaker is our child, that’s a big deal.

As your child talks about what’s on their mind, they need to know that you’re giving them your undivided attention. Removing the distractions is a great start, but it’s important to continuously show your attention throughout the conversation. If you show your child you’re listening to them, they’ll feel more comfortable opening up to you.

You can show your child you’re listening to them through nonverbal cues such as nodding your head and/or positioning your body towards them without crossing your arms. You can give them verbal cues such as saying, “uh huh” to confirm you got something they were saying. These are small gestures, but they will encourage your child to continue.

Next comes the harder step in active listening: working to ensure that you’re getting the message your child is trying to send. You can do this with feedback and questions. For example, you could ask for clarification if you’re not sure you understood something – or you could repeat back a summary of what you heard to confirm you understood them correctly.

This step can become a challenge when getting into touchy subjects. Your child may say something hurtful to you without realizing it – or speak defensively if they’re feeling interrogated. If that happens, don’t respond in kind. Rather, tell your child how their words are making you feel and ask them if they intended for that meaning or consequence. Chances are, once they understand you’re trying to communicate with them and not interrogate them, they’ll soften up a bit.

There are also times when your child may drop a bomb on you. If that happens, reserve your judgment. Start kicking the questions up a notch (meaning that you should ask for more details rather than assume you already know what they’re thinking). Dig deeper into what’s going on before you panic about what they’ve said. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it to understand what’s going on in your child’s head.

Finally, one of the most important things you can do while actively listening is to refrain from interrupting and/or jumping to conclusions.

If you want to actively listen, if you want your child to talk with you, don’t interrupt them and don’t jump to conclusions. Nothing will shut down a conversation faster than too many interruptions or a quick emotional reaction on your part.

When you want to learn what’s going on in your child’s head, there are going to be  enlightening moments and moments of deeper connection. However, there are also going to be uncomfortable moments. Power through those moments and enable your child to explain how they’re feeling. If you can do that, you’ll give them an opportunity to truly express themselves to you and you may learn about something that you would never have found out about otherwise. As your child gets older and begins to face harder choices every day, this will become more and more important. Remember, all of this can and will happen if and only if you don’t interrupt them or jump to conclusions.

The more you and your child can have conversations that are productive – even when discussing tough topics –  the more your child will turn to you in moments of fear or confusion, or when they’re getting ready to make a major life decision.

Getting Back to What You Wanted from the Beginning (a Conversation)

The whole point of active listening is to get back to the thing you wanted from the beginning: a conversation with your child or teen – not an argument or a screaming match.

If you’re concerned that this strategy lets your child off the hook for their rude behavior, don’t be.  Active listening is not about ignoring behavior that’s unacceptable. Instead, it’s about getting to the bottom of the attitude – to find out why it’s happening and how you can work with your child to put an end to it. Yes, there may be times when you’re so angry at the attitude they’re giving you that you want to yell, but remember that yelling won’t help you understand, and it won’t help your child engage in better behavior. What it will do is create a scar and a bad pattern of behavior. And that is definitely something you don’t want.

No matter the reason you and your child need to talk – whether it’s to work through a life problem, correct an unacceptable behavior, or simply to connect – active listening is the key to creating an environment in which a lot more than just a conversation happens. Active listening leads to trust, understanding, and, ultimately, a deeper connection. And that’s something we all want with our children.

Need More Help? Try My Parenting Course

Many of the concepts wrapped up in active listening techniques are easier said than done. If you feel like you could use additional assistance, try The Painless Parenting E-Course.

I’ve spent years researching human behavior — specifically the dynamic between kids and their parents. And realizing that parents are so rarely given the tools they need to succeed, I decide to make a tool myself. And that’s how this course was born.

Go ahead and try these active listening strategies the next time a conversation gets heated between you and your teen or tween. After you’ve tried them a few times, you will notice a change. If you feel like you could use additional support, sign up for The Painless Parenting E-Course to learn even more about how to use active listening techniques to stop yelling and start talking with your teens and tweens.