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February 2006
Focus on Listening

by Annie Fox, M.Ed.

"I’m becoming more aware how multi-tasking makes me crazy and cranky. It also separates me from connecting with people and activities on a deep level. So I’m trying to cut back, but it ain’t easy."
I’ve never been a sports fanatic (except back when the 49ers were a team worth screaming my head off for), but I’ve always loved the Olympic Games. Ordinarily TV watching doesn’t make my list of Family Bonding Activities, but the Olympics are a worthwhile exception. First off, they’re educational. (Where else can you learn the rules of curling?) More importantly, they’re rich with human drama (“...the thrill of victory… the agony of defeat”). So gather round the set February 10-26 and enjoy. And if you need inspiration on the meaning of the word “focus,” just observe any Olympian in action. Or you can take a look at your own life.

Without belaboring the Olympics, those folks spend years preparing for their events. It’s the practice that makes them ready. As it’s been said, “Great athletes aren’t great all the time, they’re just great when they need to be.” Same goes for parents. You can be a great parent when you need to be by setting up an environment where your teen can talk to you and where you’re prepared to focus on their needs.

Focusing is the opposite of multi-tasking. Lots of us think that we’re more efficient when we do more than one thing at a time. Personally I don’t find that to be the case. When I multi-task, I actually take more time to complete what I’m doing, and I’m more likely to make a mistake. When you also factor in the inevitable stress and the emotional detachment resulting from being so “scattered,” well, it doesn’t make a great case in favor of multi-tasking.

Torino OlympicsI’m becoming more aware how multi-tasking makes me crazy and cranky. It also separates me from connecting with people and activities on a deep level. So I’m trying to cut back, but it ain’t easy. Admittedly, as I’m writing this I’m also eating lunch, answering email, thinking about an expected call from a new client, looking forward to a conversation with my cousin, picking burrs out of my dog’s tail, and wondering what to make for dinner that would use some of those bananas browning on my kitchen counter.

Kids just like your sons and daughters constantly email me for advice. They describe their frustration when trying to talk to their parents about things that matter. Teens say their parents “don’t listen.” Parents tell me the same thing about their teens. We all want to improve parent-teen communication but we can’t do our part when we’re busy with six other things or even one other thing.

I know it’s not always possible to drop what you’re doing to listen to your kids. But let’s be honest: not many of us do open-heart surgery or negotiate international crises at home. So when our kids want to talk, we could take a break and focus on them if we chose to. But most of the time we don’t. We keep doing whatever we’re doing and shift into an unconscious auto-listening/responding thing (“Uh, huh. Uh, huh”). If you feel like it’s more pressing to fold laundry or do your online banking instead of having a real conversation with your teen, that’s your choice, but at least be upfront about it. Auto-listening is a bad idea for these reasons:

  1. It’s not healthy. In a healthy relationship trust and respect have to flow in both directions. Want your kids to respect you? Then you’ve got to respect them. Auto-listening is disrespectful.
  2. It’s not fooling them. Even toddlers have been known to turn Mom or Dad’s head to get their attention. If an 18 month old knows that no eye contact means you’re preoccupied, how can you hope to fake it with a teen? And why would you want to?
  3. You’re showing that “other things” are more important to you than your kids. You and I know you don’t really feel that way, so why would you send that message? Your teens probably don’t get 100% attention from their teachers or their friends. Let them at least get it from you while you’re having a conversation.
  4. Auto-listening is poor modeling. Our kids don’t listen to us for a couple of reasons: a) they’re teens and they need to shut you out so they can build their own identity, and b) we haven’t spent enough time showing them what active listening looks and feels like. You can’t do much about their developmental need to shut you out, but when you make a real effort to listen to your kids (with eye contact, 100% of your attention, and an open heart and mind) you’re setting the stage for them to listen more attentively to you and others some time in the future.

Don’t assume an increase in listening is going to increase the common ground between you and your teen. (We’re working on communication here, not conformity.) But if you focus more on listening you can reasonably predict there’ll be less confusion about what was actually said in a conversation. That means less arguments studded with gems like: “I never said that!” “You never said that!” and “What are you talking about?!”

Nothing is more important than showing your son or daughter that you’re always available to help, guide, and support. If your kid is troubled enough to come to you, this is when you need to be great. Personally, I can’t imagine anything that would take precedent over my desire to help my child. But if you’re truly involved in something that can’t be interrupted (even for 5 minutes) then at least stop momentarily, make eye contact, and say, “Sweetheart, I really want to hear this, and you deserve 100% of my attention, but I can’t give you that. Can this wait until 8 o’clock*?” (NOTE: You can’t use this excuse very often otherwise your kid is going to think “You never have time for me.”)

*When 8 o’clock arrives, don’t forget your promise. And don’t make your child have to initiate the conversation again. Now it’s up to you to be the leader and go knock on your child’s door and ask, “Want to talk now?” The intensity of the emotion that brought your son and daughter to you initially may have passed. You may have missed an opportunity to help. But by coming around as you said you would, you’re showing your child that you really do care. And hopefully, they’ll give you other opportunities to focus on them.

Happy Valentine's Day heartHappy Valentine’s Day

My father never forgot me on Valentine’s Day. His thoughtfulness was especially important during my middle school years when I seriously doubted that I’d ever have a boyfriend. I knew that my dad loved me and that counted a lot. He died suddenly when I was 15. I still have the sweet memory of a tiny bottle of L’air du Temps that he gave me on Valentine’s Day when I was 12. So remember your kids on February 14th. They may think your card is corny, but they’ll appreciate it.

In friendship,



Got a parent-teen problem you need help with?

Click here to Ask Annie


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