Getting Teens to Open Up

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Getting Teens to Open Up

 Jim Windell

            If you work with teenagers or if you have an adolescent at home, you know how frustrating it can be to get them to talk to you.

           The occasional “Duh” or “When do we eat?” is usually not enough to satisfy a parent. And if you’re a clinician, hearing about how awful school is or what movie they’re watching on their cell phone isn’t the same as opening up about what they’re feeling or what‘s really bothering them.

           So how can you get a teen to open up?

           Researchers at the University of Reading, in Reading, Berkshire, England, have some tips they think might help.

           Publishing in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, the researchers detailed their study in which they asked 1001 13 to 16-year-olds to watch a staged conversation between a parent and teenager about a difficult situation. In the staged conversation, the parent used different body language and different listening behaviors in different versions.

           The first video conversation scenario portrayed a teenage boy admitting to his mother that he had tried vaping and felt ashamed. In the second video, he tells his mother he was rejected by his peers after refusing to vape and felt hurt. Each video scenario had a version where the parent either listened attentively or where they appeared more distracted and used less eye contact.

           The adolescent participants who watched the versions where the parent was visibly attentive stated that they would have felt better about themselves as the teenager and would have been more likely to open up about their feelings again in the future. Essentially, among all participants, the researchers found that active listening was equally important. They also discovered that engaged listening techniques, such as eye contact, nodding and using key words to praise openness, helps teenagers when they admit bad behavior and share hurt feelings with their parents.

           This was perhaps the first study to look at the quality of listening in isolation from other parenting techniques. As a parent, being more engaged while listening may make teenagers feel more authentic and connected with the parent.

           “We all know that listening to someone talk about their problems is an effective way of reassuring them and establishing a connection,” said Dr Netta Weinstein, associate professor in clinical and social psychology at the University of Reading. “However, until now there has been little thought given to the quality of that listening, and the difference that makes.”

           Dr. Weinstein added that “This study shows that in parent-teenager relationships, quietly listening to a teenager while showing them they are valued and appreciated for their honesty has a powerful effect on their willingness to open up.”

           So, whether you are the parent of a teenager or a clinician who regularly works with adolescents, active and engaged listening is more likely to lead to greater openness – and possibly a greater sense of well-being for teens – than a more passive, less engaged style of communication.

           To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Netta Weinstein, Andrew Huo, Guy Itzchakov. (2021). Parental listening when adolescents self-disclose: A preregistered experimental study. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 209: 105178 DOI: 10.1016/j.jecp.2021.105178

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