Writings from Christine

The Art of Listening to a Teenage Rant

by on September 30, 2016

The complaint from a teenager begins somewhat rationally. A project has no real application to a subject matter or life in general. A friend is overly critical when support is needed. Or a teacher instructs only one way, leaving kids with different learning styles out in the cold. Then without warning, things escalate and become unreasonable. Now school does nothing for students. There are no true friendships. Or everyone wants them to fail.

It is in moments like these that many parents attempt to return the conversation to rational thinking. This is done in a variety of ways such as minimizing what is happening, pointing out the exaggeration, invalidating their teenager’s feelings, or trying to solve the issue at hand. But this does not produce the results a parent wants. Either things become more intense or the teenager completely shuts down. There is another way.

Notice the environment. As strange as it may sound, teenage rants are golden moments. For a short period of time, a parent is thrust into their child’s thought pattern. It is a precious time which should be seen as valuable. This is a chance to understand how the teenager thinks, processes their environment, problem solves (or doesn’t), and feels about their circumstances. Take note of when this rant occurred to use this information later. Was there an audience or was it while being alone? Did it happen early in the morning or late in the day? Was it out in pubic or in a private area?

Become quiet. The natural temptation for a parent is to try to help solve the problem or point out the inaccuracies in the teenager’s thinking. Don’t do this. Instead, become quiet and observant. Listen to what is said and what is not said. It is rarely the first thing a person complains about that is the real issue. Rather it is the issue stated with the most emotion that is likely to be at the heart of the rant. All other topics should be dismissed.

Watch body language. When a parent is not speaking, it is far easier to become aware of the teenager’s body language. This is as important if not more so than the words or emotions that are being communicated. Signs of physical discomfort in connection with mentioning a person’s name can be a signal that there is something not right about that relationship. While many adults have learned to control their body language, teenagers, especially when angry, have not. It is best to go with the simplest meaning first when interpreting the signals.

Remember the life stage. Teenagers are not children and they are not adults. Parents who treat their teenagers as children unnecessarily postpone adulthood. Parents who expect adult behavior from a teenager put too much unneeded pressure on their kid. There is a balance between the two. But every once in a while a teenager will act like a child just as they will also act like an adult. This is normal and healthy. All parents went through the crisis of being a teenager, which is good to remember when listening to a teenage rant.

Choose words wisely. Unless the teenager is specifically asking for help, parents should not give it. This is an unintentional trap. When a parent gives advice, the parent is accepting responsibility for the outcome according to the teenage brain. So if things go even slightly wrong, the teenager is not responsible, the parent is. This does not teach a teenager how to be an adult. Regardless of how ridiculous the rant may sound, parents should not try to restore balance. Again, if the teenager asks for it, then a parent can do it but if not, the same principle applies: it is an unintentional trap. This time, the teenager will use the parent’s explanation as justification for why the parent is clueless in their mind. Eventually, the teenager will stop sharing altogether.

Express empathy. The best method for handling a rant is for a parent to express empathy. However, parents should not say, “I know how you feel because I felt the same way at your age.” This leads to an automatic shutdown for a teenager because life now is very different compared to the dark ages when a parent was a teen. Instead say, “I’m so sorry you are frustrated. I wish I could help.” This does not minimize the teenager’s feelings but does communicate a desire to help if the teenager wants it. At the end of a rant, it is best to conclude with a statement of love for the teenager so they know that nothing has changed in the relationship.

These steps are very difficult for most parents because the natural instinct is to protect and help. However, when these steps are done consistently, a parent will see a dramatic shift in their relationship with their teenager for the better.

Posted under: Parenting Writings from Christine

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