teen refusing to listen to frustrated parent

How Can I Get My Teen to Listen to Me?

A study published in April 2024 may hold the secret all parents of teens have been waiting for: how to get their teen to listen to them.

The study shows that teenagers and young adults will listen to their parents if specific conditions are present in their relationship. The first goal of the study – “A Helping Hand Isn’t Always So Helpful: Parental Autonomy Support Moderates the Effectiveness of Interpersonal Emotion Regulation for Emerging Adults” – was to explore factors associated with effective interpersonal emotional regulation among teens and young adults.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) define interpersonal emotional regulation as:

“…a variety of processes in which emotion regulation occurs as part of live social interactions and includes, among others, also those interpersonal interactions in which individuals turn to others to be helped or to help the others in managing emotions.”

In other words, interpersonal emotional regulation means at least two things:

  1. How we manage our emotions during social interactions.
  2. How we manage our emotions when receiving/giving help.

This topic is germane now, in light of the emotional health of our teens and young adults reported in publications like the 2023 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (2023 YRBS). The ability of teens and young adults to manage emotions in social situations is a critical part of health development. In addition, the ability to manage emotions when give and receive help is important, too. It’s important not only between friends or peers in social situations when a teen or young adult needs emotional support from a parent or from a mental health professional.

Before we discuss the study we introduce above, we’ll quickly review the current state of mental health among teens in the U.S.

Teen Mental Health: Facts and Figures

The latest data from the YRBS shows the following statistics on core mental health metrics. These figures represent the top end of an upward trend in mental health problems and challenges among teens that began around 2010.

The statistics on suicide are alarming, which is one reason we’re exploring the topic of listening: evidence shows that teens who can talk about and receive input on their emotions are less likely to engage in suicidality than teens who don’t share or seek support. The same is true for challenges like anxiety or depression: teens who can ask for and receive help experience improved outcomes, compared to teens who have difficulty asking for and receiving support.

Let’s look at the data.

Persistent Sadness/Hopelessness:
  • 2019: 36%
  • 2021: 42%
Poor Mental Health:
  • 2021: 29% (trend data unavailable)
Considered Suicide:
  • 2019: 18.8%
  • 2021: 22%
Made a Suicide Plan
  • 2019: 15.7%
  • 2021: 18%
Attempted Suicide
  • 2019: 8.9%
  • 2021: 10%

While the latest verified data from the YRBS is from 2021, data from the 2022 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (2022 NSDUH) shows these figures remained stable from 2021 to 2022. The evidence is clear: teens need support from experienced adults. In order to do that, adults need to learn how to get a teen to listen – especially when the stakes are high.

Now let’s discuss the new research and learn about the factors that make it more likely to get a teen to listen and accept support offered by the adults in their lives.

Promoting Autonomy: A Core Component of Parenting

Prior research shows that when a parent supports the autonomy of a developing child, adolescent, or young adult, it promotes healthy socioemotional development, including:

  • Social competence
  • Self-efficacy
  • Emotion regulation
  • Overall psychosocial function

In contrast, when a parent does not support the autonomy of a child, adolescent, or young adult, it promotes negative developmental consequences, including:

  • Poor emotion regulation skills
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Mood disorders

The current study examined the impact of a specific type of support offered by a parent, and the subjective perception of the value of that support as received by the child, adolescent, or young adult. In addition, researchers examined the difference in subjective experience associated with seeking support compared to receiving unsolicited support.

Let’s take a look at the results.

Emotional Support: When Will Teens Accept Support?

The study divided the results into two basic categories: how youth responded to emotional and cognitive support in the presence of autonomy support, and how youth responded to emotional and cognitive support in the absence of autonomy support.

In parent-child relationships where parents promoted and supported autonomy:

  • Youth perceived emotional support as effective
  • Youth perceived cognitive support as effective
  • Parental emotional responsiveness perceived as stronger
  • Parental cognitive support perceived as stronger

In parent-child relationships where parents neither promoted nor supported autonomy:

  • Youth perceived emotional support as ineffective
  • Youth perceived cognitive support as effective
  • Parental emotional responsiveness perceived as weaker
  • Parental cognitive support perceived as weaker

Before we continue, we’ll point out the italicized bullet points above: regardless of the quality of autonomy support, youth perceived cognitive support as effective. The researchers theorize this is a result of the task-oriented, problem-solving nature of cognitive support: a solution can be an effective solution, whether a parent supports autonomy or not.

The research team reports additional findings on how youth perceive emotional support:

  • Youth who asked for and received emotional support perceived the support as effective
  • Youth who didn’t ask for but received emotional support perceived the support as ineffective
  • When youth with parents who didn’t promote autonomy asked for and received emotional support, they perceived that support as effective

These results contain a clear message for parents: if you want your teen to perceive your support as effective, it’s important to both support their autonomy and be emotionally responsive to their individual needs. When a child sees parental support as effective, they’re more likely to listen to and accept that support, both cognitive and emotional.

In other words, to get your teen to listen to and take your advice, promote their autonomy and pay attention to their emotions.

How Parents Can Promote Autonomy (And Get Their Teen to Listen)

One way to promote autonomy in children, teens, and young/emerging adults is by applying an authoritative parenting style. Authoritative parents walk the middle path between being a dictator and being totally permissive. They’re neither my way or the highway nor do what you like. They create reasonable household rules and explain them. They create outcomes for following or not following household rules, and explain those, too. In an authoritative household, children/teens/young adults almost always know what’s expected of them and what happens when they don’t meet expectations.

Of course, there will always be drama and misunderstanding, because no one is perfect. We’re all human, we make mistakes, we don’t always explain things as well as we thought we did, and we don’t always listen or hear exactly what we need to. Or rather, sometimes we hear what we want to, rather than want we need to, and that’s true for both sides.

However, in an authoritative household, drama and misunderstandings are less common because parents prioritize open communication and understanding. In addition to creating a household where they clearly outline expectations and outcomes, parents can promote autonomy by consistently:

  • Acknowledging their child’s feelings
  • Validating their child’s feelings
  • Supporting their interests
  • Giving them space to explore, within given parameters
  • Allowing them to experience success
  • Allowing them to experience failure, within given parameters

This approach to parenting increases overall feeling of self-efficacy in children, teens, and young adults. Self-efficacy is a combination of skill and belief: a person with high self-efficacy has practical tools to pursue their goals and believes in their ability to use those tools to achieve those goals.

We’ll close this article with insights from an interview of Dr. Elizabeth Davis of University of California, Riverside, a lead author on the study:

“Emerging adulthood is a special time of the lifespan, when there are new opportunities for freedom and decision-making, but still lots of ties to family of origin. The way parents support their youth during this transitional phase will set the stage for later adulthood.”