My 15 Year-Old Son Never Listens

DeathtoStock_Wired5I got this question the other day from a mother in my neighbourhood:

My 15 year old son loves to be alone with his cell phone and laptop. It doesn’t seem like he has time for his family anymore. He never listens to me and he teases his 9 year-old brother relentlessly. What do you think I should do?

Here is my reply:

It sounds like you are feeling frustrated. Perhaps you used to feel closer to your 15-year old and you miss those days. Sometimes we feel a big sense of loss when our children become more distant. And of course you want to protect your younger son from the older son’s teasing.

Here’s the thing: your relationship with your son is a RELATIONSHIP. I cannot emphasize this enough. He is not:

  • A repository for your dreams and demands
  • A symbol of your greatest hopes or greatest achievements
  • A puppet you get to control
  • A source of validation for you; proof that you are a good person or good mom or that you make wise decisions

HE IS A SOVEREIGN BEING.

What you have with your son is a relationship, a back-and-forth, a give and take. But this is not to say that you have equal give and take or even much equality at all. You don’t. He is not your peer and not your friend in the same way that the mother next door can be your friend. Your son is dependent on you financially, and still deeply needs your emotional support and guidance. But by guidance I don’t mean that you give him commands; rather that you could be in the position of a trusted advisor.

But this part is tricky, because HOW DO I GET TO BE HIS TRUSTED ADVISOR IF HE WON’T LISTEN TO ME?

Here is how:

  1. Do some true reflecting on why you want him to listen to you. Spend some serious time on this. Ask yourself: Why is it important to me that he listen? What EXACTLY are the messages I have for him that I want him to listen to? What is meaningful about listening? Do I really want him to ‘listen’ or is it more accurate to say I want him to ‘obey’? If I want him to actually obey me, why is that so important to me? What am I afraid of? What if he doesn’t listen or obey? What am I afraid will happen? What am I afraid that means about me? About me as a mother? BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF.
  2. When you speak with him LESS IS MORE. I can’t overstate this.
  3. Listen to HIM. Our children actually learn about listening by being listened to. It’s just like anything else in life. We learn how to do something by watching someone else model the skill. This likely will not be easy. It takes A LOT of practice. And your son may act like he doesn’t want to tell you anything. That’s okay. Practice reflecting back to him whatever he says to you. And don’t say anything more!! Don’t tell him what you think or what it reminds you of or give him advice or anything! Just reflect. If he walks in the door and says, “I am so hungry!” you could say something like, “hello food monster,” or if he says, “I hate my math teacher,” you could say, “Sounds like she makes you pretty angry.” When we can reflect back what our teen says to us, it shows them that we are paying attention. Attention = love. If we do this enough, our teens will be able to notice that we care about them and about what they think and how they feel. And they will talk with us more. If instead of really paying attention to them we tell them what we think and what we want them to do and we complain or make demands, our teens will most certainly stop opening up to us.
  4. Find someone else to listen to you. It’s not your son’s job. Find a good friend who you can share your worries with, your concerns, the confusions of parenting a teenager. Tell her about the different things you have tried with your son and with your family. A good friend can be a safe place to complain. You can be a good friend and listen to her complain too. This is the kind of peer relationship we all need.
  5. Learn about adolescent development and brain development. This will help you understand that many things happening for teenagers are normal and biological and temporary. You went through it and so did I. This too shall pass.
  6. Read the bookHow To Talk So Teens Will Listen And Listen So Teens Will Talk.
  7. Spend some special time alone with him. This will reduce, with consistent practice, the feelings of competitiveness and jealousy he may have towards his younger brother. This post has an example of a mom figuring out how to spend special time with her teenage daughter.

If obedience is what you’re looking for, you could be in for some disappointment ahead. The teenage brain is pushing towards independence, which is just another word for ‘different from you’. That’s just how the journey goes. And it will pass.

How does listening work in your relationship with your teen(s)?