If talking to your child about their substance use and other difficult topics results in arguing, the silent treatment or blank stares, it may be time for a new approach. Active listening is a communication skill to help you shift the tone away from anger or lecturing, and engage your child in a real conversation.
How to use active listening
So how do you avoid lecturing or the endless back-and-forth? Focus on listening to what your child is saying and exploring what they’re thinking by using the following tactics (you can remember them as OARS):
- Open-ended questions
O for open-ended questions
Avoid yes-or-no questions. For example, instead of asking “Are you going to do this again?” you could ask “What do you think you could do differently next time?” This lets your child have real input, providing some insight into their way of thinking. Open-ended questions let them know that you’re interested in what they have to say, inviting a conversation.
A for affirmations
Let your child know when you catch them doing things right. For example, if your child returns your text message when they normally ignore you, let them know you appreciate it. If they went out with friends and avoided drinking, acknowledge their accomplishment. While your child may continue to engage in unwanted behaviors, highlighting their wins can improve your relationship and help lead to change.
R for reflections
Let your child know you’re hearing them by reflecting back what they’ve said later. For example, if your child says “My boss is a jerk. He docked me for being 10 minutes late,” you can reflect it back by saying, “You’re upset with your boss for cutting your pay for being late.” This comment avoids any judgment and gives your child an opportunity to elaborate. A non-reflection like “Well, what did you expect? A free pass?” puts your child on the defensive. Reflections keep the conversation going and help you better understand your child’s point of view.
S for summaries
Pull together and highlight your child’s key points. Summarizing can help you change the direction of the conversation, or wrap things up by leading into next steps. This might sound something like, “So let me see if I’ve understood what you’ve told me…” followed by the key points you’ve heard and next steps for you and your child.
It may take some time and practice to shift the approach with your child, but employing these simple tactics can open the lines of communication and strengthen your relationship.