Getting Teens to Put Down the Phone

Have you ever tried to talk to your kid while she’s messing around with her phone?

You ask her something. She never looks up but she nods her head, or she answers you with brief and mechanical responses. You walk away feeling a little bit hurt because she didn’t give you the time of day, and with the gut feeling that she didn’t hear a word you said, but you leave it alone because you don’t want to get into it with her. You understand she’s a teenager, so you don’t really expect anything different, and you’ve become accustomed and resigned to that kind of interaction with her.

I experience and observe it constantly.

We communicate with our pre-teens and teens while one or both of us is using some kind of device. The implications of communicating with this kind of distraction go deeper than simply misinterpreting what’s been said. It can have a lasting effect on the depth and quality of our relationships. If we really want to connect with our kids, we can’t try to compete with technology, and she can’t compete with ours. It’s a two-way street.Lost Art of Listening quote

Sometimes I get a little irritated when my kids start talking to me when I’m already in the middle of something and I’m not prepared to give my full attention. My daughter will ask me a question or start to tell me about something that happened at school while I’m reading an email or composing a text. I hear her speaking, but I continue reading the email or writing the text while trying to get the gist of what she’s saying. Still staring at my device, I nod my head. I might even ask a superficial question to prove I’m listening and paying attention to her. Eventually I realize I was so focused on trying to get something done that I wasn’t listening at all.

I know better.

I’m a communications expert. But I still find myself trying to simultaneously answer an email and field questions from my daughter, which is the epitome of communication multi-tasking! It’s damaging to my kid’s self esteem, our relationship, and her trust in me. There is so much research that proves that the brain can’t handle multi-tasking. We believe we are not only capable, but also competent doing two things at once. We’re not.

If we really want to connect with our kids, we have to create the space to listen and to be heard.

This means changing the listening culture in our homes by removing the barriers to listening: putting down the phone, closing the inbox, taking a pause from the task at hand to be physically present, make eye contact and lean in to the conversation. We have to give our full attention.

If I’m in the middle of something, and I want to be certain that I’m truly listening. I need to stop what I’m doing, look directly at her and say, “I really want to be able to listen to you and hear what you have to say. Can you hold that thought while I complete this email and then you’ll have my full attention?”

To be sure that she hears and understands what we have to say, we need to respectfully ask for her full attention.

It might look like this:
  1. I would walk up close to my daughter.
  2. Wait until we make eye contact and say,
  3. “Maddie, I need to ask you something. When you wrap up that text I’d like to speak to you, okay?”

If I speak to her from across the room, or yell at her from an entirely different room, chances are she’ll hear my voice but won’t actually hear a word I’ve said. We have to take the reigns to create the physical environment for listening and the best opportunity to be heard.

How can we show our kids that we’re listening to them, and how can we make sure they hear us in challenging listening scenarios?

What will you do differently to change how you communicate with your children?

Can you create the space to listen and the opportunity to be heard? 

Allison O’Brien, born and raised in Kingston, Rhode Island, now lives in Lafayette, Colorado with her two children, a 14 year-old daughter and a nine year-old son. She is a Consultant and Facilitator with Listening Impact, a communication-consulting firm based in Boulder, CO.  She is passionate about helping others to cultivate meaningful connection through the power of Listening.

Read more from Girls Leadership about Parenting

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