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The Single MOST IMPORTANT Skill Parents of Athletes Need to Know and Practice

The Single MOST IMPORTANT Skill Parents of Athletes Need to Know and Practice


After seeing hundreds of teenage clients as a therapist and mental performance coach, there is one question I get asked more often than any other by parents…

 “What can I do to help my child when they are struggling mentally or emotionally with their performance?”


Invariably, I answer this question the same way every time. I say

“the single most important thing you can do to help your child is to fully listen to them.” 


To listen to them, you must ask questions, show empathy, validate their experience, and then ask how you can be helpful. It is not your responsibility to fix their problem, it is your role to help guide them through the problem.

Listening is the skill that allows you to guide effectively. It helps them to feel heard and that they are not alone with the problem. It helps them to process the situation without feeling judged. It helps them regulate and feel safe. It helps them to think more clearly and rational. 

Most parents think that they do a good job listening to their children (and some certainly do); but many do not. How often have you heard, “you don’t understand me,” or “you never listen!” How much do your kids come to you, or accept your feedback when you give it? Parents truly do want to be helpful, but for a few reasons find it hard to connect.


The Parent Traps

There are two major traps of being a parent of a teenager 

1- They have spent their entire lives listening to you and your “wisdom,” being constantly told what to do by you, and hearing your judgments of what they can and should do better. Teenage years are a time where the child finds independence from the family unit, and that means from your suggestions and advice as well. I can’t tell you how many times a parent has told me that their child will listen to me or a coach over them even though the suggestion is the same. 

 2- You’re used to being a fixer. You like being a fixer! For your child’s whole life you have been fixing their problems, finding solutions for them. For the first time in YOUR life, you do not have real control over how they respond. It is now up to them to handle their challenges. This is a newfound situation for you, requiring you to manage your own fear/anxiety response or a need for control. Know that they are capable of (and need to) handle their difficulties on their own. They do not NEED you to fix it. They simply need your presence there. 


Listening Leads To A Thriving Relationship

I know it’s hard to sit there and see your child suffer, knowing if they just had a certain mindset, or did a specific action that they would be fine. Experts in communication have found that good listening is the top skill that can be developed and can have the greatest impact on the quality of your relationship. This skill also has the greatest impact on your teenager’s ability to manage the experience of their suffering most effectively. 


A good listener should… 

Be Fully Engaged

-Give them full attention. Stay off the phone. Stop cleaning. 

-Give them eye contact. 

-Face them. 

-Give little encouragers to keep them talking like nodding your head or saying short phrases like, “mmhmm,” or “go on.”


Validate, Empathize, and Summarize

-See if you can recognize/name their emotion. Check to see if you are correct.

-Use phrases such as the ones below to show you understand and empathize

      *It seems like you are feeling upset, frustrated, etc…  

      *Wow, it makes sense that you feel upset, frustrated, etc… about that. 

      *You’re in a tough spot, huh

      *That must have been really difficult for you

      *So you’re saying… (and then summarize what you have heard)

Ask Questions 

Parents will typically ask one question and then directly give their opinion or advice. Your role in helping is to keep the child talking. Ask follow-up questions. And then ask more. Offering questions and showing that you understand (through empathy and validation) are the best way to do that. Be sure to have a curious tone to your voice, not a judgmental or dysregulated tone.

Here are some good questions: 

 - What would you do differently if you had another chance?

- Why do you think [insert person’s name] did that?

- What do you think you should do next time?

- Am I missing anything with this story? What else is important to you to share?


Asking The Most Important Question

Once you have listened, asked questions, empathized, validated, and summarized, there is one final critical step/question to ask… “What can I do to help?” Maybe your teenager will want you to give advice or to help create solutions, or even to be involved in whatever solutions are created. They may want you to do nothing, which is ok.  But you asking this critical question shows them that you trust them to know what they need to do to handle this problem on their own but that you are always there as a safety net if they need.  


In conclusion…

What is the greatest thing you can do to best help your teenager be resilient, feel confident, independent, and manage the inevitable ups and downs of life? 

Fully Listen to Them! 

If you have more specific questions about this topic, please reach out to [email protected]

Thanks for reading!

Powell Cucchiella, LMHC

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