Henry David Thoreau said, “It takes two to speak the truth — one to speak and another to hear.”
When it comes to understanding a child’s needs, we might alter that famous quote to say instead, “It takes two to hear the truth — one to speak it and another to listen.”
Listening and hearing are two very different things. Hearing your child means you are engaging the physical function of your hearing sense. It’s a one-way activity. The child speaks the words — and those words enter through your ear and into your mind. Listening, however, is a dialogue. The child speaks, you hear what your child says — but then you are engaging empathy and responding to your child in a form of communication he or she can relate to.
Don’t deny your child’s feelings, whatever you do.
Welcome to active listening, one of the most important tools for parenting (and for handling adult relationships as well). The single most important thing for any children or adults is to feel they’re seen and heard. Active listening fulfills that need.
Dr. Jason Stein is a licensed marriage and family therapist with a doctorate in clinical psychology; he practices in Brentwood, California. “Active listening has the goal of attunement — making sure the other person feels seen and understood,” he told LifeZette.
He offered several easy skills that encourage active listening.
“Restating” is an important tool.
“This shows you are listening,” said Stein. “You repeat what the child said, but with a critical difference. You replace content with feeling words.” This is sometimes called “reflecting,” such as, “I can see this makes you sad.”
This is also known as “emotion labeling.” The skill can be particularly useful with children who have difficulty expressing their feelings, or even understanding what feelings they are having. By providing a name for what they feel, they will have a stronger context to be able to refer to it.
“Encouraging” is a good way to keep a conversation going.
It demonstrates you’re listening — and takes what was said “to a deeper level that connects with the other person.” This is where you nod your head, say “I see” and more. Be careful not to overdo this, though, as it will make the child feel as though you want to rush to the conclusion.
Validate your child’s feelings — this is very important.
Remember, this is not likely to be a factual discussion. Facts and feelings are two different things, and many parents who are in a rush to solve a problem will get hung up on the factual situation and discount the feelings. All of us, but especially kids, want to vent. Feelings need to be expressed and heard.
Don’t deny the child’s feelings, whatever you do.
Your comments should be encouraging. “You are absolutely right to feel that way. I would feel the same way if that happened to me,” is one example of this. By opening that door and validating the feelings, you can go deeper. Stein said that “feelings questions” are designed to draw the child out with deeper and more meaningful information.
When it comes time for actual problem solving, your question might be, “What do you think would happen if…?”
When it is your turn to communicate, your active listening skills can be built upon by engaging in actions that show you have been listening. Sharing personal experiences can cut both ways — but in general, if a child hears that you have had the same or similar experience, he or she will generally feel comforted because it will enhance the identification with you. Your kids will not feel that this is unusual or that they are alone in their feelings.
Trying to “mine” for concrete information should be avoided.
Don’t forget that sometimes “silence is golden.”
This requires more nuance and awareness. Sometimes it allows children to think or feel their way through something.
Don’t ask “why,” which can force a child to justify something.
This can make kids feel defensive. Be careful not to dismiss a feeling or situation by telling the child not to worry about something.
Most kids don’t want advice, either. Remember, this isn’t about problem solving. It’s about being seen and heard.
So avoid telling kids what they should or shouldn’t do. Thus, trying to “mine” for concrete information should be avoided. It isn’t content that’s important right at this moment, but how your children feel about the concrete that matters.
Begin trying these skills one or two at a time on the next occasion you talk with your kids. You’ll create a warm, comforting, and supportive dialogue.