THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Parenting: the Advantage of Listening

The duties of parents are many. We must structure our homes, set rules, expectations, consequences, etc. We all have had different types of parents, different mothers, parenting styles, levels of humor, love, social values, interests, levels of encouragement, empathy, understanding, passion, openness, generosity, structure, predictability, rigidity, etc. These are some of our assets and handicaps.

There is a great deal more to adolescents than "did you clean your room?" There are two arbitrary measurements I will use: "Distance" and "ride". The "distance" our adolescent has traveled can be measured easily -- "Did you clean your room?" "Did you follow the rule?" The "ride" includes the experience of actions, thoughts, and feelings about the same and other activities and feelings.

If one carefully thinks about parenting necessities, they are largely all "distance". That observation tells us little or nothing about the "ride" of our child. The "ride" of each child is different. Decidedly so. So unless we decide that one "ride" equals all "rides", we know that we are as different as night from day from each of our brethren. So it goes with adolescents, they are as different, one to another, as are we. Nevertheless, we often fall back on a simpler solution, that one "ride" describes all adolescents. "They're all crazy". In some respects, the 'ride' is really all that matters. Although we can conjure up all the formulations and theories ("distance") that we wish, it is the "ride" of the adolescent that matters the most. And "rides" are as many as there are adolescents to "ride". Adolescents think and talk about "ride". "Ride" talk to an adolescent by a parent ordinarily means the end of "ride" parenting, and the onset of "distance" rule-making. It is one more sign to the adolescent that he/she is not understood, not respected, and not listened to. "Distance" here is theoretical, a judgment. ("sex is bad") It has nothing to say about the "ride" of the adolescent, in this instance, sex.

Listening

Listening to adolescents often leads to a "dialog" and creates the closeness and openness wished for by most of us. This "dialog" virtually always illuminates the "ride". The "ride" is the adolescent's actual experience of events, thoughts, feelings, etc.

Patience is mandatory. As with all of us, we don't continuously explain how we feel, irrespective of the listener. However, the better the listener the more likely will be the expression of the "ride" and the more often we will grasp the reality of our child.

The adolescent is attempting to state his/her experience in life at that moment. In that sense what they say is always their "truth", even though it may make no or little sense to us. We must try to make sense of the ride of the adolescent, as best we can. They will often explain. We can aim at creating a listening situation. The recognition by the parent that there is a "ride" of their child, is crucial. Grasping this "ride" is the stuff that yields understanding of our adolescent and meaningful parenting and dialoging.

These "rides" are not static, but ever-changing. Obviously each of our adolescents' "rides" in life may appear similar, yet are realistically entirely different. Treated as static, this is another instance, more than likely, of an unheard adolescent, who departs the dialog.

Unheard "rides" are designed for nothing in terms of the dialog between parent and adolescent. Unheard "rides" are both useless and destructive. Destructive in that there is no hearing.

Dr. Wilfred Bion in his book, "2nd Thoughts, Commentary", says "our 'understandings' are only models which must be able to be constantly constructed, discarded, to be replaced by another theory or model, etc." Understandings otherwise derived cannot possibly investigate the truth of our adolescents. To realize the importance of the kind of thinking that goes into this model-making with respect to adolescents cannot be overstated. Models must be made which illuminate our adolescents "ride". In other words, we talk to our adolescent about their present, past or future hoping to further understand their thoughts and help them to understand themselves. Adolescents may seem "all over the place." They're moving, but remain graspable. We must move with them.

Parental learned formulations are often the root of the determination by the adolescents that they are not being listened to, understood and are only being given contrived, theoretical understandings. (Like my father and the bus -- see below). Adolescents often feel, correctly, that what they say are thoughts awaiting the chance to be attached to a theory held by their parents.

Utterly distraught by a failed, first romance in high school (she broke up with me) I told my father, tearfully, of the event and of my overwhelming torment. He said in a moment of great "understanding" and "compassion": "girls are like buses, another will soon be coming down the street." Last I ever asked him on that or any related topic.

It is here that our job as parents expands greatly and likely into the most important and rewarding part of being parents. Adolescents learn about themselves and us, and we about them and ourselves. They become people, not studies in pathology. They are people to be loved, taught, and understood, not always thought of as sex-crazed, drug-addicted, criminals.

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