Active Listening: Talking To Teenagers So You Really HelpBy Alicia Summers
When it was time for me to decide what to study in college, I found myself deeply confused. I’d always loved art, writing and literature, but I was also fascinated by science. I felt overwhelmed by the fact that the decision I had to make at the age of 17 would dictate the rest of my life. And I made that decision without the benefit of active listening, a vital communication skill that parents should consider including when talking to teenagers to help them make important decisions.
As a child I was never independent or free-spirited, and decisions were hard for me. One morning, feeling particularly anxious, I confessed to my mother, “I have no idea what to do!”
“If you ask me,” she said immediately, “I think you should do a Bachelors of Science with a focus on Statistics.” She said she thought so because I was good at Math and I could find a well-paying job after. I wasn’t sure if this made much sense but I didn’t have the courage to think for myself, so I went to college to study Statistics. Within the first few weeks, however, I began to struggle and feel miserable. I kept trying to fit in; to work hard on crunching numbers and calculations, but I fell behind my classmates and I did badly on tests.
Four months later, much to the shock and dismay of my parents, I quit. This was perhaps the very first time in my eighteen years of life that I had done anything willfully, but to be honest I did it only because I knew I didn’t want to spend my entire life in misery.
My mom feared for my future but all I knew was that I couldn’t sit through another class teaching me how to punch calculator keys for two hours straight.
I lost the entire year before I began college began in a field I chose for myself – a year that was filled with soul-searching and self-study. Looking back at that time all these years later, I do sometimes wonder if things would have gone differently had my mom really listened to me the morning I confessed my confusion to her.
Talking to TeenagersI know most people would say that of course she had listened. In fact, she had even given me advice, and it was my responsibility to think through it and decide if it worked for me. She really wanted to help me because she loved me and wanted me to succeed. I hear talking to teenagers isn’t exactly easy, anyway.
However, the more I reflect on this, the more strongly do I believe in the power of “active listening.” Active listening is different from the act of simply hearing someone out and then offering advice.
Active listening means engaging in a discussion. Having a real conversation. Hashing out different ideas and helping by drawing out a person’s latent feelings.
It involves the act of empathy; of putting oneself in the shoes of the other person, and asking questions to help the other person think clearly and make sense of their feelings.
Talking to teenagers should involve active listening. Perhaps my mother could have asked me: What subjects do you love best in school? What activities make you most excited? What are your skills and talents? What new skills would you like to learn? What do you see yourself doing five years from now? If you imagine yourself in a job, what work do you think you’ll most enjoy?
These questions would have gotten me to think closer, to analyze myself, understand my passions, and chart a course of study that was more aligned with who I was. What happened, however, was that my mother concluded the best thing for me to do was Statistics without thinking about who I was. Although my mother wanted the best for me, she didn’t know how best to help me.
The eight months following the day I quit were a hard road of self-discovery for me. I struggled to find out what to do with my life. I forced myself to overcome my shyness so I could speak to people from different professions. I read about different fields, and studied for entrance examinations. And five years later, I graduated as an animator and filmmaker, and went on to win awards for my films. I became a published author and illustrator for prestigious publications like Scholastic and Puffin-Penguin. Still hungry, I came to the United States to study journalism at Columbia University, where I graduated with Honors. Professors told me I was a good writer and their faith in me reinforced my belief that I was blessed to have found my calling.
I quit Statistics because of how much unhappiness it brought me, but the act of doing that brought me to where I am today.
Teenagers the world over go through the process of making the life-altering decision of what to study in college, and I believe parents can help them make the right choices. By actively listening, parents can also help their children cope with other problems they face as they grow up. By active listening, parents can engage their children at a deeper level and help them to make the right decisions, understand their feelings, and eventually learn to take the right decisions for themselves in a number of different situations.
That’s what real communication is about. Talking to teenagers involves listening and asking the right questions. And for a child, to have a parent who truly listens can mean the difference between being like a ship lost at sea to finding a lighthouse to guide their journey.