The Art of Listening to your Child
by SUSAN GRIFFIN, LMFT AND DENNIS WONG, PHD
No matter what, we must listen to our children – actively and closely. Positive parenting requires the willingness to consistently listen to your children. And that’s not easy sometimes. First, our little ones speak a different language from us. They speak in metaphors, symbols, and animalese. Children’s language consists of whining, crying tugs and yelps; aches and pains; ghosts and monsters; candy castles and magic lands.
So how do we listen accurately when we don’t speak the language? Listen actively first. This is important for developing positive parenting skills. Get to the child’s level physically. Make good eye contact. Watch their face and gestures. And now the hard part. Tune into yourself as you watch and listen to your child. If we’re open to active listening, our child will help us feel how they feel. Whether it’s fear or sadness or anger, tune in first and then talk. It’s called empathy – experiencing the situation from the other person’s point of view.
Empathy is how we effectively listen to our children and it’s how we teach our children to listen to others. If we model active listening for our child, s/he will use it with others. This is good for both parents and children. There’s no moment quite as lovely as the first time a parent sees his/her child reach out to comfort or support another person who is having a hard time. That moment of kindness bodes well for the future of the child, the family and the larger culture. Active listening lays the foundation for the development of effective communication skills based on respect and mutual cooperation. And the older our children get, the more important communication becomes.
All parents are concerned about protecting their children from adult information about sex, drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Inappropriate information is everywhere: small screens, big screens, billboards along the freeway, our favorite radio stations and music, YouTube, TikTok, SnapChat, and video games. And other families’ homes. There’s a limit to any parents ability to monitor what their children experience. So the earlier a parent opens the door to mutual communication about difficult topics, the more likely it is that children will talk.
How do we open the door, and keep it open? The first step is self-honesty. This is really important for positive parenting skills. Each parent must acknowledge the tough areas for him or herself which are important for our own parenting – our relationship with our child; and co-parenting – our relationship with our partner. When do you clam up? What makes you go silent? What topics do you avoid? When do you overreact? What are you paranoid or neurotic about? Whatever the answers to these questions, pay attention. These will be the challenge points between you and your child as s/he grows. Don’t wait until his/her adolescent years to start the dialogue.
Speak briefly and simply when these sensitive areas present. Start when your child is young. If you see or hear something that bugs you, something you disagree with, make a simple statement like, “Hmmmm, I don’t agree with that.” Even very young children get the message. First, you have feelings about it, and second, you’ll talk about it. This gives your child permission to talk to you about your tough issues and his/hers.
Children have a way of responding to your active listening when you least expect it. Two days, weeks, or months after you have shown your feelings or shared your thoughts, don’t be surprised when your child – as if out of the clear blue — will ask the difficult questions or express his/her opinion. And even when it feels challenging, there is nothing quite like it. Truly, if your child speaks to you directly, unedited, spontaneously, openly……you are doing something right!
So just keep listening. This is important for both parents since co-parenting is a reality for every parent, whether we live together or live separately. From the cries of the infant to the valedictorian speech of the graduate the time goes quickly. We must make the time to actively listen to our children. S/he will respond dramatically to being heard. Our investment in listening now will create respect and mutual cooperation in the lives of our children and the lives of theirs.