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Listen to learn

Even at a young age, kids know when we’re truly listening to them, versus simply tolerating them. Our kids – especially teens – have a deep need to be heard. Listening is one of the most critical aspects of a parent-child relationship. If kids think we’re not hearing them, eventually they’ll stop talking to us. So, as parents, we need to understand what it means to really tune in.

Relationship experts often distinguish between three levels of listening.

  1. Listening with an agenda
  2. Listening from our own perspective
  3. Listening with an open mind

The goal, of course, in any situation, is to achieve the third level of listening: By listening with an open mind, we can elevate our conversations. It gives us a much better chance of uncovering our children’s inner thoughts, fears and opinions about underage drinking. In some ways, listening is the most powerful tool available when it comes to preventing underage drinking.


Chances are, many of our conversations with our kids involve listening with an agenda.  At this level, instead of hearing what another person is saying, we’re busy reciting a script in our minds. We’ve come to a conversation with a specific outcome, and aren’t really open to ideas that stray from our original agenda. For example:

Parent: “Sit down. Your mother and I want to talk to you about underage drinking. You know you’re not supposed to drink, right?”

Teenager: “Yes. Can I go to Lee’s house now?”

Level 1 listening is usually characterized by yes-or-no answers and interruptions, which can lead to misinterpretations, misunderstandings and hurt feelings.


This level of listening is better than listening with an agenda, but it still limits our ability to fully hear another person. At Level 2, we’re listening to what our kids say, but we’re instantly relating it to our own views and experiences. For example:

Teenager: “Mom, you just don’t understand how hard it is to be the only one of my friends who has such strict rules.”

Parent: “I know it’s hard to be a teenager. When I was your age…(etc.).”

When we listen from our own perspective, our kids feel their comments are just a platform for us to reminisce and remind them that we know best. On the surface, it may seem we’re having a conversation, but actually we’re just waiting for our turn to talk.


To fully hear and understand the words of another, it’s important to listen without judgment, preformed ideas or constant self-reference. The idea is to respond to the specific words, feelings, and opinions expressed by our kids in the present moment. We focus on what they’re saying and feeling now, not on what they’ve said in the past, or what we believe ourselves, or what we think our kids should be saying. For example:

Teenager: “Mom, you just don’t get how hard it is to be the only one of my friends who has such strict rules.”

Parent: “I understand it must be hard to feel singled out like that. How have you been dealing with it?”

When we listen with an open mind, we’re not discounting the feelings and problems our kids are trying to express. And by responding to their comments with an open mind, we show them respect, which helps build trust and allows us a higher level of involvement in their lives.

It’s key to acknowledge our children’s feelings and situation, and restate their messages back to them for clarification and feedback. This validates their remarks, and lets them know we understand their reasons and feelings, though we might not necessarily agree. If we put ourselves in our child’s position, we can get a better sense of their thoughts and feelings. Then, we can share what we think we understand with warmth and acceptance.

There will be times when we misinterpret what our children have said, but if they know we’re listening with an open mind, they will help us understand. Listening with an open mind sends a clear message that we’re open to discussing anything, without passing judgment or getting angry.

Don’t repeat your child’s words verbatim. Rephrase them to capture the feelings expressed and a bit of the situation to demonstrate that you have been listening and do understand.

By resisting the urge to press ahead with our own agenda and our own solutions, we’re giving our kids a chance to learn to speak their mind and solve their own issues. At the same time, through open dialogue, we can let them know we’re there for them if they need help.

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