Teens & the Need to be Understood

Starting out as a therapist trainee, I worked specifically with kids in anger management groups. At first I was a bit nervous about working with disgruntled teens who were forced by the court to attend my groups. However, I soon realized that it didn’t matter so much what I did or said but how much I listened to them. Even the most resistant teens slowly opened up when they saw that I actually listened to what they were saying. Sometimes they would be rude, change the topic entirely, or even try to be insulting. Despite these obstacles I would do my best to acknowledge where they were coming and what they had experienced. I found that until I made an effort to listen and show them that I was listening, they would not care about anything I was saying or asking.

As an associate therapist, one of my supervisors told me a phrase that has stuck with me. She has said “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” This is especially important in working with teens. Pope Paul VI wrote in an encyclical “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”. Being witnesses and being able to mentor teens first means listening to them and meeting them where they are at. 

So how do we witness? We can first and foremost witness by communicating to teens that we are in fact listening. When talking with adults, most teens don’t feel heard or understood. Teens in therapy will often say things like “My parents don’t understand me” or “Adults don’t get what I am experiencing or going though”. While their parents probably do understand most of what is going on, adults don’t always fully listen or convey that they are seeking to understand. 

So let’s look at some tips for “Listening 101” with teens.

Be present. As mentioned, you can’t listen if you’re thinking about the laundry you left in the washer at home. It starts with being present in the room and with the teen. “Be. Here. Now.”

Use Positive Body Language. Often times when we are talking to others, we are on our phones, we’re distracted, or we’re not even facing them. When talking with teens, show them that you are listening by nodding and verbally acknowledging what they are saying. Something as simple as facing them and nodding can make a world of a difference.

Reflect Back. If you really want someone to know that you are listening, reflect back what they are saying. For some people it’s easy to listen and interpret or provide feedback but reflecting often means to repeat verbatim what a teen tells you. It sounds simple, but it is so important. If a teen says “I’m really stressed out at home because my parents are fighting all the time.” You can literally respond with, “Okay, so I am hearing that you are really stressed out at home because your parents are fighting all the time.” It may sound silly, it may be too simple, but the person will know that you are in fact listening and understand.

Listen to listen. More often than not we are listening to respond, which really isn’t listening at all. We are more concerned about what we will say back than what the other person is actually telling us. We all do it, especially with teens. Leading teens and listening to actually listen requires trusting that we will know what to say when it’s our turn to speak and trusting that God will help us know what to say next. 

Listening is the door and the first step to real relationships and to trust. As my supervisor said,  “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”. Often times teens in therapy are shocked that adults are not there to tell them what to do or lecture them. If a teen knows that you are listening, they know that you care. If you care, they most likely will too. Active and intentional listening, while simple, opens up so many doors and builds healthy and honest relationships. When talking to teens remember to be present, physically show teens that you are listening, reflect back what they are saying, and listen to actually listen.


To schedule an appointment with Adam Cross AMFT please call (805) 428-3755, email amc.cross7@gmail.com, or visit the contact page at adamcrossmft.wordpress.com/contact

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