The problem with parents is that they think they know best. To be fair, they often do. But when we are convinced of our own inevitable rightness, it’s tempting not to spend enough time understanding the problem and just jump in with a solution. Especially when we are stressed or pushed for time, we often underestimate the importance of process over outcome in children’s development and we forget the importance of listening to children.
I mean really listening to them. Buttoning up our own mouths and paying full attention to what our child is saying and how they are saying it. Listening not just to understand the words but also the emotions and intentions.
When we don’t listen in that active way, we tend to jump in with a solution that doesn’t necessarily fit. Or, we offer a good solution but our child is unable to connect with it because they haven’t gone through the process of being understood and calming themselves in order to reach that solution for themselves.
Close your mouth and open your ears
(As my gran used to say). When your child is talking to you about something difficult, or they are emotional, be quiet. Zip your mouth shut and listen not just to the words and their literal meanings but also to the way your child is speaking and what that tells you about how they feel. When there is a pause, briefly summarise back to them what you have heard (“I can tell you are really upset. You’re upset because Ellie called you fat.”). That will help your child feel heard. And if you haven’t understood correctly, it gives them a chance to keep trying to explain.
Listening to children helps them calm down
When we don’t feel listened to, we often start escalating our behaviour in frustration to communicate our emotions. Crying turns into shouting. In contrast, when we feel heard and understood, heightened emotions often start to subside. Teenagers’ outbursts, for example, often escalate when parents fail to validate their teens’ emotion (perhaps because the emotion seems ridiculously overblown or misplaced or because it is directed at the parent). Simply acknowledging that you recognise how a child feels can help them start to process that emotion and calm down.
Don’t offer solutions
The aim of listening to children is firstly to make your child feel understood. The goal is not to try and fix the situation or change their feelings. Holding back your suggestions can be really hard to do when your child is distressed or the issue is very emotive like bullying. Obviously, parents want to fix it, to stop the bullying or make our child feel better. But save the problem-solving until after the emotion has been processed – your child can’t engage effectively in solutions immediately. Don’t use the words “should” or “shouldn’t” (eg “You shouldn’t feel that way“). You child feels the way they feel and your job is to connect with that real feeling. Don’t jump to conclusions and don’t try to solve the problem until you are sure you have understood it completely.
Listening to children empowers them
In fact, the ideal is that you don’t try to solve the problem at all. Your child will learn so much more from the experience if you support them to solve the problem themselves. Take your lead from your child and support them to find their way through their feelings towards a solution rather than removing the problem for them. Ask questions rather than giving suggestions. (“Why do you think Ellie said those mean things?” “What do you think you could do about that?“). Finding their own solutions helps children learn problem-solving skills. It also makes them feel valued and empowered to have their opinions listened to (especially important in a situation like bullying). And it helps build their self-esteem.
Listening to children leads to more talking
Feeling understood provides connection and makes it much more likely your child will talk to you again in the future. If they don’t feel that talking to you met their emotional needs, they are less likely to do it again. Keeping those communication channels open is essential, especially for parents of teenagers, and helps to protect children’s emotional and mental health.
Stress gets in the way of listening
When we’re stressed, it’s much harder to listen well. Stress impacts on parenting in lots of ways that damage connection. Stressed-out parents often feel short of time or patience and are much more likely to overreact. Listening to children well means controlling our own emotions in order to tune in to our children’s.
So the next time your child gets emotional or presents you with a problem, just remember: if you’re the one doing the talking, you aren’t doing the listening.
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©Anita Cleare 2017