Did you ever have a conversation with someone and you believed there was something they were not telling you? Maybe something was left out in their sharing, or their body language suggested something different than what you were hearing. Theodore Reik, a 20th-century psychoanalyst, wrote a book entitled Listening With the Third Ear. What he meant by that was the practice of listening for the deeper layers of meaning. To listen for what is not said. With our young adults, much can be unsaid.
Listening with the Third Ear
So how can we listen to our young adult children with “the third ear”? First, we can ask for clarification. “Can you say more about X or help me understand what you are trying to say?” Young adults may not clearly know what they are thinking or feeling. In such cases, a sincere, caring, gentle, probing, open-ended question may be able to surface this in their mind as well as yours.
Second, we may share an observation that the way they are communicating doesn’t match what they are saying. For instance, a young adult when asked about how his day says “fine.” But his tone and body language may suggest otherwise. I am reminded of the findings of Ray Birdwhistle that no more than thirty-five percent of communication is the actual spoken word. Sixty-five percent is nonverbal.
Thirdly, we may sense (intuition) that our young adult is not either willing or able to share something that is below the surface. If we detect this, we can ask if there is something the young adult is not sharing? However, it is important to back off if the young adult says “no” either explicitly or says he doesn’t want to talk about it. Listening can’t be intrusive and takes timing. Sometimes just letting the young adult know we are interested and willing to listen is the best we can do.
3 Critical Development Tasks
Finally, it’s important to listen for specific young adult themes. Beyond just a desire to be happy and have fun, young adults are trying to make progress on three critical developmental tasks:
Failure to make progress on these three tasks is almost always the underlying cause of unhappiness. If you think of these three themes, you will be able to explain ninety percent of the source of a young person’s actions. Tattoos and piercings, wearing strange clothes, outrageous hairstyles are all efforts to create an identity if not an expression of independence. Arguments about the use of cars, staying out late, wanted to attend a specific college or no college are signs of asserting one’s identity and independence. Pursuing an intimate relationship, either explicitly or unbeknownst to the parents, are efforts to explore relationships and intimacy. Unfortunately, not all actions on these critical developmental tasks are constructive. Our job as parents is to listen to underlying themes and find ways to support the healthy expressions of these. It’s easier and less contentious to focus on constructive efforts to address these developmental tasks than always challenging questionable ways they might choose to address these.
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