Excerpt from Chapter 6

Listen Big
to Build a Bridge to Your Teen

Bridges span gaps and bring people together. Good communication does that too. When a young person thinks his mom or dad or a counselor understands his problem the way he understands his problem, the two will connect. “Listening big” or with intensity is the way to do that. It’s how a parent can communicate that he understands the frustration, hurt, or disappointment the teen is experiencing—without using the words, “I understand.” Few angry teens believe anyone can understand their situation; especially adults who say, “I understand.” But skillful listening can change that.

Listening is active, not passive, and it is definitely a skill. It bears no resemblance at all to the “listening” that merely involves waiting until it is your turn to talk. Your listening needs to be a big deal all by itself. It needs to get your teen’s attention. Listening to angry teens must be big, thoughtful, and purposeful.

Solomon explains why: “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out” (Proverbs 20:5). Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke says that this “deep water” is a metaphor for what is “unfathomable, inaccessible, non-beneficial, and potentially dangerous…” Deep water is that which “competent persons [have the] ability to draw up skillfully to the surface…” One must listen intently to draw out what lies deep below the surface.

In your initial conversation with an angry teen, your job is not to fix, bring salvation, interrogate, or dictate. Your job is to listen big, that you might learn how to draw out that which is deep within. Like the supporting concrete pylons that make a bridge sturdy, there are five “listening pylons” which will enable you to listen big. These equip an adult to build a sturdy bridge to an angry teen.

First Pylon: Listen by Echoing Your Teen’s Feelings with Your “Quatements”

“Quatements” are statements that are spoken somewhat like questions. To be effective, they must be sensitive to a teen’s thoughts, feelings, fears, disappointments, or frustrations. You don’t have to parrot back his exact words; it is probably best if you don’t. Translating his feelings into your own quatements, however, can show that you are tuned in to him.

  • “So you are frustrated every time you try to talk to the teacher. She won’t take any time with you.”
  • “You can’t please your parents—no matter what you do!”
  • “I give you the impression that nothing you do is good enough.”
  • “You get really upset when they laugh at you in gym. You’d like to get even with them.”
  • “You see that I get upset and angry sometimes, too, and you feel like I’m a hypocrite.”

The point of listening big is not just so you understand what your teen is going through. To plant that first pylon, you need to listen and respond in a way that demonstrates that you really do have a fairly good understanding of how he understands a particular situation. (Ironically, without using words such as, “I understand”!) Quatements can help your teen see that you do hear more than just his words, that you are listening to more about him than just his vocabulary.

This can be overdone, of course, and quatements can become wooden and sound artificial. But to pepper your early responses with these can send the message that, in your angry teen’s estimation, you are “listening for once.”

Most angry teens are not accustomed to being approached like this. They are used to being “interrogated”—their interpretation of the way adults talk to them about their behavior. Sometimes they have a point: “Why did you do that?” “Who else was there?” “Didn’t you ask anyone first?” “What did you think was going to happen?” “So, what is going to happen now?” “Do you know what this is going to do to your GPA?” “What kind of example do you think you’ve given to your brother?”

When it comes to angry teens, interrogation may help parents express frustration, but it won’t help teens change. Quatements, however, are better than a lot of questions. They form a crucial first pylon for that bridge of understanding.

Second Pylon: Listen for What Your Teen Does Not Want

Teens are usually the most willing to work on areas of their lives where they do not want what is currently happening. In these instances, pain is a great motivator. As you listen for these unwanted feelings and experiences, you can plant one more bridge support that says that you understand what your teen is going through.

  • “I don’t want the teacher to take points off when I don’t do it her way.”
  • “I don’t want my parents to split up!”
  • “I don’t want you always treating me like a little kid!”
  • “I don’t want to have to go to summer school”
  • “I don’t want her to yell at me anymore!”
  • “I don’t want you coming in my room without knocking on the door.”
  • “I don’t want the teacher to keep picking on me.”
  • “I don’t want to feel like I’m going to throw up when I come to school.”
  • “I don’t want you always telling me what I can listen to and not listen to.”
  • “I don’t want my mom to blab my business all over the church.”

Any myriad of things can fill in the blank of “I don’t want ________!” A parent or counselor’s usual response to such comments is to become confrontational. We point out how irrational, inappropriate, or just plain wrong the teen is in clinging to these desires and opinions. We may be right about that. But our goal is not to be right. Our goal is to help, and confrontation at this stage is just not helpful.

Instead of confronting, just keep listening. Make sure you understand clearly what is not wanted. Use quatements to clarify. Do not start probing for causes and explanations. Just keep at it, listening for what he does not want, until he thinks you’ve gotten it. Usually, what he sees and experiences as his problem is all you need to understand for the time being. Once you have built this bridge of understanding and trust, the balance of your time is going to be spent on helping him develop solutions—to get what he does wisely want. Clues to that wise want are embedded in your understanding of what he does not want.

You can usually tell that you’ve made a good connection with your teen when you see a small physical change in his behavior. He may sit up, change the angle at which he is sitting, change his facial expression, become more relaxed, begin to talk more freely, and often begin to make more eye contact. All of these are positive signals. The teen sees that to some degree you are on his wavelength.

Read excerpts from Chapter 7

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