Active Listening

Part 1: The Basics

Oftentimes, we hear from our teens phrases like “My parents just don’t listen” or “They just don’t get it”. And it’s not because you’re not trying!

Picture this:

Your teen is telling you a problem of theirs. It’s a moment ripe for connection! You want to be there for your child! And yet, those moments, more often than not, seem to turn sour and end with a door slam or a hang up.

The problem, a lot of the time, is because your teen wants someone to listen, not to problem-solve (even if they might ask you to!). Think about it, in general, most people don’t really want to give away ANY of their decisions. When we make a decision for someone we are taking away their power. We are communicating that we don’t believe they are competent enough to make their own decision.

That’s where active listening comes in! We at LINK know that deep inside a person is the solution to their own problem. We try not to give advice, but rather help the person come up with their own solution. This process helps them think through the situation in a more productive way, which not only comes to a more realistic decision but also adds to their self-esteem.

To help parents out with this, we have broken down the three most important parts of listening that parents should really focus on: Reflecting Feelings, Questions, and Silence.

Reflecting Feelings

The active listening skill we’re going to talk about first is Reflecting Feelings. Truly reflecting your teens feelings is a huge show of empathy. The goal is to listen to the feelings underneath the content of what your teen is saying and mirroring it back to them. To be clear, parroting back exactly what they are saying isn’t going to cut it. Again, active listening is ACTIVE. It’ll take some work.

You’re going to want to really listen and try to synthesize what they are feeling in your own words. And watch out, oftentimes we carry our own prejudice when we hear someone express negative feelings. At LINK, we know negative feelings aren’t inherently bad, and your teens are going to need to find a place to express them. Make that safe space you.  It will help them to freely explore their own feelings and possibly understand them better.

For your next conversation, you can use phrases like “I wonder if you are feeling BLANK” or “it sounds like you might be feeling blank” or even a simple “Yeah. That sounds like a difficult situation”. These simple phrases go a long way in making your teen feel heard and more importantly in communicating that you are trying to understand them! So go ahead, come up with just one phrase that you think, hey, I could see myself saying that. And try it out next time!

Here's a helpful 3 minute video from Dr. Brené Brown, a leader in psychological research, where she spells out the difference between Empathy and Sympathy.


Here are some helpful phrases you can use to reflect your teens feelings:

“It sounds like you’re feeling _______”
“I wonder if you’re feeling _______”
“It sounds like a very difficult situation”
“I imagine you must be feeling really ______”


I’m sure there’s so much you want to know about your teen, but we’ve noticed that teens reactions to parents questions can definitely be hit or miss. That’s why our next section for active listening is all about Questions. Questions are a really important part of active listening, because they can be used to help explore and reflect feelings with your teen and show them them that you are taking time to care about what they are going through.

The best way to start asking good questions is to try and ask open-ended questions that are focused on exploring rather than closed anded questions. Closed ended questions are anything that can be answered with a yes or no. And trust me, that can kill any conversation, no matter how hard you try.

The other thing that we see most often is that any judgement or agenda, even unintentional, gets magnified very quickly through the wording of questions, and can put your teen on the defensive. Think about it, how many times have you asked a question that started with “why”, “is”, “do”, or “have”? Theres nothing inherently wrong with that, but those questions illicit a negative response. Put yourself in your teens shoes, how would they feel when a question starts with “Why did you,” “Have you,” “Is that what you,” or “do you”? It can feel like they are being cross-examined.

My rule of thumb is to stick to two good question starters “How” and “What”. You can remember that. Things like “How are you feeling right now?” Or “What does that feel like for you”. They’re open ended, non-judgmental question starters that will hopefully get you and your teen some answers. So go ahead! Try it out!


Questions can be used to reflect feelings and are great for clarifying or elaborating. Here are some good questions you can use:

“What do you mean by _____?”
“What is it about _____ that bothers you?”

Get into the specifics (easier to deal with than nebulous ideas)

ex. “What is feeling depressed like for you?”

Stay in the here and now.

ex. “How are you feeling right now?”

Good Starts: “HOW” or “WHAT”

Bad Starts: “WHY”, “IS”, “DO”, and “HAVE”


If you’ve ever had an awkward car ride of silence with your teen, or stopped and started through a conversation that felt like more silence than talking then….. you’re a parent. But now, we’re going to learn how important silence is for active listening.

Active listening is NOT doing all the talking. If you’re actively listening, your brain is putting in work, it’s active. And if you notice yourself talking a lot in a conversation, take a beat and let your teen say what’s on their mind. Because when you’re talking, you’re not listening, and they can feel that.

Your silence gives them space to express themselves. It communicates that all of your attention is focused on them and that this conversation is not about you, it’s about them. I know I say this a lot, but put yourself in your teens shoes. When there’s no space in a conversation, and you respond too quickly with your solution, or a story, or another question, (and trust me I know it’s out of love or worry or care) but it can come off like there is an agenda, like you already knew what you were going to say no matter what your teen said. So why should they even talk to you? You see. Silence can really make a difference in getting your teen to want to talk to you.

Silence is also good, not just because it gives your teen time to think about what to say, but it also gives your teen time to process the things that you’ve said. And a surprising thing is that in these conversations, at LINK we’ve found that the best outcomes are when parents also feel heard. Because that’s what everyone wants. And silences can help.


Active listening is NOT doing all the talking. Get comfortable with silences: It’s okay, you’re not doing anything wrong. You don’t need to say things to let your teen know you are there for them.

More Learning…

We’ve also attached a New York Times article for more info about Why Teenagers Reject Parents’ Solutions to Their Problems

NY TIMES: Why teenagers reject parents solutions to their problems

Remember: You’re here, and that’s enough. <3