Believe It Or Not, Your Teen Actually Is Listening To You

by Kristen Mae
angry woman with mad expression

He pushes me away when I want to have a heart-to-heart, but then he needs my immediate attention for something to do with school. He huffs and tells me I “don’t get it” when I interject my opinion about a social situation, but he listens intently when I explain social inequity. He doesn’t want my help–he’s got this. But he needs my help. Immediately. He wants to figure things out on his own. He wants me to walk him through it. He’s not listening. Literally, he has headphones in his ears and isn’t listening. Is he?

When it comes to parenting teens, it can be tempting to get frustrated and back off, or even to give up. It can be equally tempting to helicopter and micromanage. But neither is the right approach for our teens. They do need to be given the agency to make independent choices, but they’re not adults yet. They still need our guidance. They need us to be good role models, good pep-talkers, good supports. They need us to continue to parent them–to keep talking, even when it seems like they’re not listening. Even when they are determined to make you believe they are not listening.

Because … our teens are listening. And they need us now as much as they have at any other age, if not more.

I often hear or read online other parents complaining that their teens aren’t listening, that there’s no “getting through” to them. It can feel like that sometimes, but that doesn’t mean we should give up trying to teach them.

My 14-year-old son has a habit of getting in the car after school and leaning as far away from me as he can, one knee tucked to his chest, his head bowed, his eyes on his phone. He doesn’t want to socialize or talk about his day–at least, not with me. It doesn’t matter how carefully I word my questions, how kind and loving I am. He simply isn’t interested. I am no longer the center of his world. This is not preschool pickup when he would catch a glimpse of me through the window and drop what he was doing so he could run to me.

I leave him alone when he’s especially grumpy because no need to poke the bear, but mostly, I keep talking. Sometimes I ramble and crack self-deprecating jokes (“Listen, I’m your mom, it’s my job to embarrass you with my weirdness”), and sometimes I get serious and demand respect for my comparative years of experience. We’ve argued about this. He’s said, “Just because you’re older, doesn’t mean you’re right,” and I’ve snapped, “I am happy to be proven wrong, but at the moment the evidence is on my side and you will hear me out.”

We’ve had all those messy parent-teenager interactions. I’ve often wondered if my words are getting through. I’ve even worried he’s slipping away from me, that I no longer have any influence over him. I’ve been scared I might lose him. I’ve pictured being “that mom” with the kid who has really difficult behavior problems, the big problems no one talks about because no one knows what to say, because it’s embarrassing, because no one wants to believe that a mother who honestly gave her all could lose control over her kid.

I worry, and yet, I know my son is listening. I know because I occasionally overhear him talking to a friend, sticking up for another kid who someone just said something nasty about. Parents of his friends have come to me and told me he’s said sweet things in front of them–things I’m pretty sure he picked up from me.

One parent told me that he’d overheard a debate between my son and his friends about the relevance of beauty when it comes to falling in love. His friends insisted that attraction is super important, but my son remained stubborn and insisted that looks shouldn’t matter, that it’s what’s on the inside that matters most. I doubt the world will ever meet my son’s ideal, but bless him anyway for hearing me all the times (or some of the times, or at least one of the times) I told him never to judge a person by how they look.

Another fellow parent overheard him explaining what “nonbinary” means to his friends. When his friends expressed their difficulties with using they/them pronouns, my son offered examples and told them it was easy with a little practice. He asked them to imagine how awful it must feel to always be labeled with the wrong gender. The person I’ve been dating for nearly a year is nonbinary, so my son knows this stuff. It’s not surprising he had the info at the ready. But I love that he spoke up. I’ve always told my kids to speak up on behalf of marginalized folks, because the marginalized person shouldn’t have to be the one to always explain and defend themself. It’s on privileged folks’ shoulders to learn and educate each other so we can do better and create a kinder world. And he listened.

Our teens are listening. Their faces may be buried in their phones, they may shrug and mumble and roll their eyes, they may act like they don’t care what we say–but they are listening. They absorb what we say more than we know, so don’t stop talking.