I heard about a teenage girl one day who one day came home and began venting about her friends to her dad. After a few moments, the girl screeched, “Daaaaad, you haven’t listened to a word I’ve said, have you?” Her dad replied, “That’s a strange way to start a conversation.”

The most common lament I heard from 21 middle school girls at a recent weekend retreat was that their parents don’t listen to them. So, I thought I’d offer you the five most common mistakes I see parents make when listening to their children. Buckle up for a rough ride.

  1. Stop giving me advice! When our kids come to us with their hurts, it’s hard not to want to jump in and fix the problem. Girls often tell me that is not what they need. They want their parents to just listen to them, get in their shoes and see the issue from their perspective. That’s more than enough. Learn to mirror back what you think you heard your child say, then check in to see if you heard her right. If so, then ask her to share more. Once she feels fully heard, empathize with her: “That really stinks. It makes sense why you feel that way.” Research has shown that teens with empathetic parents have lower levels of systemic inflammation, a biological marker of emotional stress. Your kids also will learn that it is good to share with you, and thus you can remain an influence in their lives throughout their teen years and beyond.
  2. Put your phone down and listen to me! Kids who are around distracted parents feel unimportant, unheard, unloved and misunderstood. When you’re open to listening to them, drop everything and be present, giving them your full attention.
  3. Stop making it about you! Many girls have shared with me that their moms turn their feelings back onto what the mom is experiencing. When one of my patients, Sarah, shared how stressed out she was about her upcoming final exams, her mom flipped the script, saying, “You think you’ve got it rough! What about me? I’m a single parent working two jobs.” This left Sarah feeling unheard and like her feelings didn’t matter. She has decided that her mom and her friend’s feelings are more important than hers. Instead of feeling heard and understood, she’s left feeling like she now has to take care of her mom. It’s also important to not add your feelings and stories from your childhood into their experience because it becomes overwhelming. They have enough to deal with without having to sift through your emotions.
  4. Respect my context! Every child has their own unique doorway into their emotions, and our job is to find the key to help them feel safe enough to share with us. Give them more control in deciding on the context when they share, i.e., the time, place and what they share. For some kids, it can help to not ask direct questions about their feelings but instead ask how their peers are feeling about the issue. Research shows that helping teens step outside themselves and observe their situation from a third-person perspective helps reduce overall stress and helps them think more rationally about challenges they face. Some kids are more comfortable sharing side-by-side while driving in the car or walking around the neighborhood. Others share better by writing out their thoughts in a journal or letters.
  5. Just be around! You never know when the window into their heart may open to allow you in. So, be around and available as much as you can so that if they need to talk, you’re accessible. When my son John was 15, he and his friends were watching a football game one Saturday evening, and when it was over, they asked if I would drive them to their buddy’s hockey game. It was eleven p.m., and it had been snowing for several hours. I was tired, but I said, “Absolutely!” I always learned so much by shutting my mouth and listening to my kids chatting away with friends during car rides, acting as if I weren’t there.

When the door into your children’s minds and heart opens, jump through it. Before you know it, they’ll be gone into the world and you’ll wish you’d taken advantage of those opportunities. Just listen!

Tim Jordan, M.D., is a behavioral pediatrician who counsels girls aged grade school through college. Listen to his weekly podcast, Raising Daughters, to gain information on raising strong, resilient girls. For more info on his retreats, summer camps and books, visit drtimjordan.com.