The Zen of Parenting Teenagers; Part II

The Art of Being There but Not Being There



As promised, Part II of The Zen of Parenting Teenagers will add some ‘how to’ to asking fewer questions of your adolescent and using active listening to support your teen emotionally. Before discussing the practical skills of active listening, the fascinating topic of adolescent brain development and its troublesome effect on communication with adolescents will be reviewed quickly.

      Knowledge regarding adolescent brain development has exploded since the early 1990s due to the ability to scan brain activity through Magnetic Resonance Imagining (MRI).  It is now known that the human brain continues to develop into the mid-twenties. The last part of the brain to fully develop is the frontal cortex, the CEO of the brain controlling logic, critical thinking, reasoning, filtering  and impulsivity. Research has revealed that the teenage brain is wired quite differently than an adult brain and that an adolescent brain is still ‘under construction’.  Adolescents have much more difficulty calming their emotions and they often misread facial expressions (Spinks, 2002; Powell, 2004).

     All this talk about adolescent brain development is to encourage you to have sincere empathy with your teenager while at the same time setting the firm yet loving boundaries they desperately need.  Diligently determine to refrain from taking anything personally that comes out of their mouths. Now the ‘how to’ of active listening Zen style.


     Refrain from Asking Questions   When tempted to ask questions call on your Zen parenting powers and remember to listen more than you speak. Little words and phrases to encourage your adolescent to continue talking like . . . hmmm, wow, interesting, I am listening, any more, I see . . . will encourage open communication.  To facilitate communication with your teen, try sitting side by side rather than face to face.  Engaging in an activity  with your teen such as running, baking, shooting darts, painting, playing cards, kicking a soccer ball, scrapbooking, rebounding basketballs, etc. can open up a space for your teen to talk with you.

     Stay in the Here and Now   Teenagers live in the here and now.  Reflect verbally what your teens immediate concerns are by paraphrasing or summarizing what they have just told you minus lectures about the future, down playing the significance of their current circumstance or trying to ‘fix’ their situation. The action of reflection in active listening is exactly what it sounds like: mirroring both verbal and unstated emotional content for your adolescent. You can start reflective statements with phrases like:

Wow, it sounds like . . . . .

I think I understand what you just said, you are. . .

I think what I heard you say is . . . .

     Validation of Emotional Content   It may be new to you to think of all human emotion as being equal; however, emotions just ‘are’. One emotion is no better than another. Our emotions assist all of us in our decision making. In trying to understand and validate your teenager, remember you do not have to agree with their emotional response. In fact, you might be completely confused by some of their emotional reactions. When you are able to validate your teen’s emotions you are leading them to a calmer state and toward the executive functioning portion of their brain. Guessing what they are feeling is quite alright because they will certainly let you know if you are incorrect! Try to increase your repertoire of emotional words beyond the basic sad, mad, happy, etc. A few lead in phrases for validation of emotions are:

If that happened to me I might be (insert emotion) . . . . .

It seems like that could have been (insert emotion) . . . .

I can understand how you might be (insert emotion) . . .

     Now you are well equipped with the practical “how to’s” of asking fewer questions of your teen and listening more . . . Zen Style!   Be patient and kind with yourself as you practice your new skills. Listening with a true desire to understand is perhaps the greatest gift we can give anyone, including your amazingly wonderful adolescent. For inspiration, read the poem The Empty Boat by Chuang Tza @

Move and the Way Will Open                    

Yin.Yang_Zen Proverb

Helen H. Thomas, Licensed Clinical Social Worker providing E-Therapy @


Spinks, S., (2002). One Reason Teens Respond differently to the World:Immature       Brain Circuitry. Frontline.

Powell, E. (2004). Studying Functional Differences in the Adolescent Brain may Provide   Evidence that the Nervous System is Responsible for Behavior.


About HelenHThomas

As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, I am honored to work at Cook Children's Medical Center as a Clinical Therapist providing supportive counseling for the parents of our tiniest patients in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. I feel infinitely thankful to share my life with my best friend and life partner, Dr. Charles R. Thomas (Chuck). Spending time with my wildly fantastic adult children, their spouses and our exceptionally wonderful friends makes my life complete. Life is good!
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