New research reveals young people believe significant adults in their lives don’t listen to them. Here’s how you can change that.

Family support organisation Act for Kids surveyed more than 300 young Australians aged between 14 and 17 and discovered the majority of them don’t feel listened to and aren’t speaking to anyone when they’re worried.

Parents should be troubled by this because children who don’t have anybody to talk to, and who bottle up their emotions and worries, can often develop mental health problems.

“If kids don’t think the adults are listening or are available, they start to feel unloved and uncared for,” said registered psychologist Dr Katrina Lines, CEO for Act of Kids, in a podcast with parenting expert Dr Justin Coulson. “When they don’t feel worthy of someone listening to them or their problems, they often end up with depression and anxiety.”

Who our young people talk to

More than 60 per cent of the young people surveyed revealed while they may have close adults to talk to, these adults only “sometimes or maybe listened”. Surprisingly however, when asked to choose who they would talk to about their problems, almost the same amount picked their friends (65%) or their parents (64%).

Dr Katrina believes this means children want to talk to their parents, but a percentage of them don’t believe their close adults listen to them and so they give up.

Growing up, it’s crucial children have at least one significant adult in their lives listening to and encouraging them. This relationship helps to build resilience in our children, giving them the best chance of succeeding later in life.

The adult doesn’t have to be a parent—it could be a teacher, a sports coach, an uncle or an aunt, even a grandparent. The point is, this adult can help a young person manage their emotions and worries, co-regulate with them and, most importantly, talk through problems with them.

What if my child doesn’t want to talk to me?

Most experts agree on one thing when it comes to getting young people to talk: Don’t ask them a point blank question. Opening a conversation with “Is everything okay?” or “Do you want to talk?” is a sure-fire way to get shut down.

Psychologist Collett provides some tips on how to get our young people to talk to us in the video below.

Getting children to talk is about playing the long game. This also means you should consider utilising these strategies on younger kids, before they become teens.

Dr Katrina suggests starting with small talk. “Build it into everyday, incidental, side-by-side things,” she said. During these chats, she warns parents to put the phone aside and stop running through their mental to-do lists because “kids can tell”.

“If you build the small talk connection, and you do things with them, then if there’s a ‘big talk’ that needs to happen, the kids will feel like you’re listening to them and will actually talk to you,” she said.

In response to the research, Act for Kids also released a tip sheet for parents on how to start (and maintain) meaningful conversations with their children. If your children are old enough to have their own device, you could even send them a “just thinking of you” message. Sharing a funny meme can also help.

How long do kids want to spend with their parents?

The perception as kids get older is that they start to communicate less with their parents. Act for Kid’s research reveals a surprising finding: 1–2 hours a day.

Young people were asked how much time a day they wanted to spend with the adults in their lives. Their four options were:

  • None
  • Less than 30 minutes
  • 1–2 hours
  • More than 2 hours

Dr Katrina said the majority of the responses was for 1–2 hours a day. A day. “Our children are craving to spend time with us,” she said.

In case you start planning up to two hours of deep and meaningful on-the-couch conversations with your child however, what these kids want is to simply hang out and do stuff with their parents. The conversations happen while you’re in the car somewhere or doing things together.

Create the opportunities for incidental conversations. Show them we are capable of listening. Our kids—even teens—want to spend time with us. And if we allow them, they may even want to talk to us.

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