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Why Parents Need to Really Listen Right Now

(using Active Listening Skills)

Are you concerned about how your child (or spouse, or friend) is coping with all of the issues confronting them right now?  Have you actually tried to find out what things are really bothering them, rather than just assuming that they are facing the same issues and concerns that you are facing?  Are you confident that they know they can bring their concerns to you and find a safe space where they can process everything that’s going on, knowing that you will understand and respond with empathy?  (And not try to solve their problems, or offer your opinions.)

Have you walked away from a serious conversation with your child feeling like your words were just not sticking? Maybe your child feels the same way.  As Amanda Ripley wrote “Humans need to be heard before they will listen.”  In lockdown we’re with our families mostly 24-7, and tuning everyone out is one coping mechanism. Unfortunately, it also closes the door on really being able to help your child deal with their frustrations and concerns.  Now is the time to mix things up and start by looking at how you listen.  And as your listening skills improve, so will your child’s, and you will be heard.

It’s easy for the important things to go out of focus while you’re trying to work from home and manage your child’s online learning. In the midst of COVID-fatigue, it becomes rather easy to go through the motions of listening, and not really hear what your child is saying. When this happens, we can miss little cues that tell us how they are doing and how they are feeling.  Equally important, your child notices that you aren’t listening, which makes them feel belittled and insignificant

To “really hear” what someone is saying, you have to consciously put yourself in the “really listening” mode.  Your responses to the speaker will let them know that they are being heard.  Think about a conversation where you felt the person you were speaking with really heard what you were saying. It’s likely that person used some of these active listening techniques that made you feel heard and understood:

  • Eye contact
  • Attentiveness
  • Open minded
  • Don’t interrupt
  • Ask questions to help better understand the situation
  • Empathize with the person
  • Give positive feedback

When your child is sharing a part of their day with you, put yourself in “really listening” mode and show that you are listening. For a child, knowing that they are being heard provides a sense of security and reinforces positive self-esteem.  When your child knows they won’t be judged they can safely bring their concerns to you — not only the issues they are facing now but also the ever-more-difficult ones they will face as they grow up.

These active listening skills are important in situations when you want to be an involved parent and help your child make good decisions. Listening well does not mean you always agree with what your child is saying. If you don’t agree with what your child says or how they handled a situation, take a step back and listen in order to try to understand where your child is coming from and how to coach them on where they are going.  Really hearing someone means you do not jump in with your opinion, ideas or judgment; it means that you absorb what the speaker is saying and respond with empathy.  And as you really listen to your child, you can help them assess their actions, analyze their options, and choose their path.  You can’t be by your child’s side every minute, telling them what choices to make and what actions to take.  As they grow up, you have to trust the lessons your child learned as you calmly nodded and coached them through their earlier mishaps.

This is especially important right now when we’re all mourning losses: a loved one, the opportunity to play on the varsity team, a graduation celebration, a long-planned vacation, a visit with grandparents, or simply hanging out with friends. Being able to listen to and help your child name and explore their feelings, such as anger, frustration and sadness, will help them as they process their experiences and prepare to move on.

As you listen to your child, take the opportunity to think about how you experienced things when you were your child’s age and what things were like for you at that point in your life. Then you can provide perspective that can help your child think about and understand their own experience.

Your empathy is powerful. Your child learns about how to communicate in every conversation they have. Making some of these techniques part of how your family talks with each other, you will be benefiting your child’s ability to communicate with their peers, now over Zoom, FaceTime, etc., later when they return to school, and in social situations generally. Being an effective listener helps make an active learner, as well as providing valuable skills for problem solving and conflict resolution. These skills also help build a strong foundation for your family’s relationships and communications; these skills can be crucial when faced with other challenging situations and provide a framework for working out conflict. And when life returns to some semblance of “normal” you’ll be able to point to your child’s resiliency in dealing with the challenges faced today.

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Try using these tips to help you get the best out of a conversation with your family and build bridges to better communication:

  1. Set up some one-on-one time with each of your children.  It can be as simple as when your child is helping you make dinner, set the table etc.
  2. Focus on your child.  Ask them how their day was (even if it was all spent within earshot of you), ask open ended questions, make sure they know you are interested in what they have to say.
  3. Try not to interrupt if they are telling you a story about some behavior you don’t really agree with. Try to ask questions that are not judgmental. For example, “why do you think you reacted that way?”, “how did you feel after you had that reaction?”. Help your child sort through the emotions and come up with their own conclusions.
  4. Put yourself in your child’s position.  Try to listen and not over-analyze what they are saying. Remember your child is talking to you, they want to trust you with their stories and feelings.
  5. Share an experience where something similar has happened to you, and you can offer some comfort.
  6. Restate parts of the story, so your child knows you are listening. This also helps you better understand the context of the story.
  7. Repeat this sequence with each of your children.  Sometimes having these conversations as a group will ensure that no family member feels left out and not heard. 

Over time, using these techniques will help develop your family’s listening “muscle.” According to Stephen Walton from The Positive Parenting Centre website: “It’s critical to model your capacity to listen and understand.  In turn, your child will instinctively develop active listening techniques of their own.  They will become less argumentative and defensive, become more democratic and develop emotional maturity.”  Be the best listener you can be to help promote good communication and understanding within your family.   Active listening is not only about paying attention, it is also about engaging in dialogue, and one important pay-off is deeper and richer family relationships.

Further Reading

Nine Nonobvious Ways to Have Deeper Conversationshttps://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/19/opinion/nine-nonobvious-ways-to-have-deeper-conversations.html

To Process Grief Over Covid-19 Children Need Empathetic Listening

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/to-process-grief-over-covid-19-children-need-empathetic-listening/

Grieving the Losses of Coronavirushttps://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/well/family/coronavirus-grief-loss.html

A List of 9 Books to Help Teach and Reinforce Active Listening

http://www.parents.com/fun/entertainment/books/best-books-to-teach-listening/

How to Use Active Listening with your Kids

Listening is a Skill

Ten Steps to Help with Active Listening

https://www.forbes.com/sites/womensmedia/2012/11/09/10-steps-to-effective-listening/#1717be7d3891

Active Listening Skills Enrich your Parental Communication

http://www.the-positive-parenting-centre.com/active_listening_skills.html

Become a Better Listener

https://psychcentral.com/lib/become-a-better-listener-active-listening/

Everybody Loves Raymond Uses Active Listening

‘When I Was Your Age’ And Other Pitfalls Of Talking To Teens About Stress

http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/04/16/523592625/-when-i-was-your-age-and-other-conversational-pitfalls-of-talking-to-teens

Taking Action – to learn about activities you can do with your family to enforce really listening, click here.

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