Build the Skill of Active Listening
and They Will Come
That's a corny take on the famous line from the baseball movie "Field of Dreams" but it’s right on. If you Active Listen your children when they have problems, they will seek you out. What parent doesn’t want that? (If you just gulped and said "Me! I can't have them needing me to solve their problems!" read on, good soul!)
Here's my all time favorite story of how delicious AL feels for a child:
One of the instructors from my first parenting course had a son who, once in a while, would run up to her, pull on her skirt and plead, “Mommy, do that thing to me, do that thing to me!” What “thing” was he talking about? Active Listening.
My second child Jake often does the 13 year old version of running up like that. There have been several times when I have gotten a call at 7:50 am, ten minutes before his school day starts. The conversations go something like this:
Jake: “I hate Harrison!” (his older brother)
Me: “Something happened that made you so upset!”
Jake: “He didn’t tell me he was going to use my shoes when I was away and now I just found black stuff all on the sides!”
Me: “That was a shock and you don’t appreciate that - you're annoyed because you want your shoes to look clean!”
Jake: “Yeah. Ok, bye.” [click]
After each (abrupt) early morning call, I feel great knowing I am helping him move on with his day. (Bring the learning on!)
Sometimes, Jake prefers to text:
And it’s not just children, folks! One of my best friends who has taken my course actually texted me a few weeks ago: “I need to talk if you have a moment.”
I called her back and she breathlessly described a very upsetting event with her boss. Every once in a while, she would pause and ask: “So, tell me what you are hearing.” She craved the release, clarity and direction that AL provides. After our conversation ended at 11 pm, she was able to fall asleep; over the next couple of days, she had the energy to form some Confrontive I-Messages which helped ease her anxiety about speaking to a higher-up in this way.
Listening deeply and communicating acceptance is a SUPER GIFT for people you love! I’m backed up by none other than child psychologist Michael Thompson (author of Best Friends, Worst Enemies, Raising Cain, The Pressured Child and others). Speaking at my children’s school, Dr. Thompson told of a workshop in which he asked kids, “How do you know your parents love you?” Together they listed 30 things on the whiteboard. When he asked them to think real hard and choose just one, they chose “when they really listen.”
And on a very, very somber note, the teenage daughter of a girlfriend back home just this week called the suicide prevention hotline for a friend. It very well could be that this depressed girl’s parents were not in the habit of Active Listening and she didn’t feel safe or understood enough to go to them.
So you want to develop (or refresh) the skill of Active Listening? Let’s break it down.
When do you AL?
Active Listen when your child tells you or shows through behavioral cues and clues that he has a problem. You can AL what he says (“I am not going to piano today!”) or does (cries, hits, stops eating, withdraws, yells).
What do you need to AL?
- Time - If the bus is coming, do a quick AL and schedule a follow-up -- “Honey, I see you are sooo upset and I really want to listen and help. How about we talk right when you get home from school today?”
- An Accepting Heart - Allow your child to have her unique reaction to her own problem. If she senses your judgment -- e.g. you want her “not to be so sensitive or take things so seriously” or to stop the whining or to apologize for saying she hates you -- she will get derailed into defending herself instead of exploring her problem with your help. Later you can share your values around positive thinking or assertive communication but it's all about timing. Your child is drowning in emotions and that's not the time for a swim lesson. Moreover, she just may apologize on her own, and that will be so much more satisfying.
Now, let's be real: feeling that you WANT to help your child is a major challenge when you are triggered by his behaviors - that requires another blog post! In the meantime, first remove yourself from the situation before you do or say something to harm him or the relationship. Then, show self-compassion by Active Listening yourself! What are you feeling? What are you needing? I have found these two resources helpful: mindfulness teacher and clinical psychologist Tara Brach's process of RAIN (Recognize, Allow, Investigate and Non-identification) and Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell's book Parenting from the Inside Out (flip directly to Chapters 7 & 8 if you are as desperate as I was).
- Empathy - Don't be afraid to step into her shoes and reflect back the fullness of her emotions so she knows you really get it. Often parents worry that if they acknowledge strong emotions their child will grow more hysterical - quite the opposite. Accurate Active Listening will calm her by signaling several things:
- The horrible way she feels actually has a name - frustrated, annoyed, scared, helpless, sad etc. (She learns emotional literacy.)
- Feelings are friendly and help us figure out what needs are not being met. (She learns to be unafraid of emotions.)
- You recognize her extreme upset (and are looking past the "bad" behaviors) and yet still want to help her. (She learns you love her unconditionally.)
- Trust that your child can find his own solution. In P.E.T. we talk a lot about problem ownership. Many parents find it hard (but ultimately freeing!) to realize that it's the child's problem and their role is to foster his problem-solving capacity.
What do you do exactly?
- Listen with full attention - Let FB Messenger pings go unchecked (believe me, I know how hard that is!)
- Reflect back two things:
- The content of the child’s total communication (words, tone of voice, body language, gestures)
- The underlying emotions
Here's a handy formula: AL = facts + feelings
Example: Instead of "You don't like your teacher and school is not fun at all" (facts only) you might say "You are so annoyed and disappointed with your teacher and the way the school year is playing out." (facts + feelings)
What should you watch out for?
- Avoid overusing the question “What’s wrong?” A child often presents with behavior that masks the underlying problem and need. Why? She herself may not yet know! The classroom example we use is the girl who starts off by wishing she could get a cold and stay home from school but whose underlying problem is actually social awkwardness. Through AL, you help her spiral down to her need for belonging and acceptance. So asking her right off the bat what the problem is can often be a communication Roadblock -- she may feel silly admitting she doesn't know.
- Keep the focus on your child’s internal feelings rather than on answering questions or agreeing with him. Kids often throw us off with questions like “Did you hear that noise?” Instead of answering “No, I didn’t” you can reflect back “Wow, you seem really scared” and take his hand. Parents may also feel alarmed and focus on the object of the child’s concern -- “Yeah, Charles does seem like a big bully!” Rather, try to capture the child’s experience of being around Charles -- “You’re scared of him and are so nervous about playing in the game with him today.”
- Try not to parrot back verbatim what your kid says. Use your own words, and don’t forget to add the emotion you are picking up. Remember, if you are off target, she can just tweak it -- “No, actually I don’t feel sad, I feel frustrated!”
By helping your child name his emotions, you help him move from right-brain upset to a more integrated state where he can access left-brain reasoning abilities. Often, the catharsis frees your child to come up with a solution. Feeling steadier, Jake could have chosen to give Harrison a Confrontive I-Message: “When you take my shoes without my permission and leave them dirty, I feel really, really irritated and embarrassed and then I’m stuck with having to clean them because I can’t find you and school is about to start!”
AL is the foundation of all effective communication and can be key in not only building closeness between you and your child but also facilitating his growth as a person. Showing acceptance of how he is at that exact moment, paradoxically, allows him to change:
Active Listening is the first thing we tackle in class and is, hands down, the most challenging to master. But build up this key skill and your children will know who to go to when they need help.
And that, I think, qualifies as a parenting grand slam.
Credit: Baseball diamond from http://static.move.com/blogs/2012/4/0403mlb1.jpg