In our modern world, we are constantly bombarded by electronic communication. Even our cars talk to us. Our kids are plugged in and tuned out. And, let’s admit that we parents are sometimes so frazzled and stressed, that we may, occasionally, tune out our children. So how can we really connect with our kids? Let’s get back to the basics of listening.
Create sharing moments
Look for little rituals that can create a sharing time. Walk the dog with your child. Lie down with her for a few minutes after the lights go out. Make a special check-in time, either in person or by phone, as your child gets home from school. The more your child can count on these times, the more likely they are to bear fruit. First, indicate that your child has your full attention. You can’t cheat on this; kids know when you are distracted by work or other obligations. Take a moment to focus on the “here and now,” breathe deeply and enjoy the sensation of being close to your child.
Bodies have feelings, too
Kids vary in their ability to use words to talk about their feelings. It seems obvious to you that your 5-year-old is angry when she turns red, screams and stomps off. However, she may not be able to say, “I am so angry!” Part of our job as listeners is to help our children connect the physical experience of emotions to feelings. It can be helpful to comment on your child’s physical signs first and then wait for her to respond. Then suggest a feeling associated with these signs. “Sometimes when people are tired and frowning, they feel sad.” You can give the label, but the child does not feel pressure to admit to painful feelings. Or your child may burst in the door, dancing around the room with a huge smile on her face. Here is an opportunity to link labels and feelings in a positive way.
Paraphrase, don’t question
Questions can make your child feel put on the spot, and they can come across as critical. For example, if Sally comes home saying, “I am really mad at Jessica,” try saying, “So something went wrong with Jessica today . . .” rather than “Why are you mad at Jessica?” The former opens up exploration of the topic; the latter suggests that Sally should not be mad at Jessica. Try to summarize without commentary. It is better to use your own words, indicating that you have really thought about the experiences and feelings your child shared; you aren’t just parroting back the same words.
Take time to get the story straight
Kids often experience events in a jumble of emotions and may have difficulty connecting the dots. A basic chronology of who said what and when can help you identify important information, show your child patterns and help her understand motivation. What happened before “Johnny hit me” is often an important piece of the puzzle. As your child talks about the incident, it provides a good opportunity to help your child see things from someone else’s point of view: “How would you feel if . . . happened to you?”
Try to understand your child’s point of view
Children often have reasons for their behavior that fit with their view of the world. Problems crop up when a child’s priorities don’t mesh well with those of adults or society at large. You don’t have to agree with your child’s perspective, but she will know that you understand if you can articulate her point of view. Otherwise, you run the risk of hearing, “Never mind, you just don’t get it.” Often just feeling understood can free your child to consider other possibilities.
Don’t forget the positive feelings
It is as important to understand what makes us happy and excited as to know what makes us sad or angry. Feelings, both positive and painful, help us establish priorities in life. As we mature, many of our experiences are bittersweet, and even dark moments can have elements of joy. Exploring the range of feelings engendered in a particular situation helps to enrich your child’s experience and helps her to move beyond all-or-nothing thinking.
How do I know if things are on the right track?
A child who is not ready to talk directly about a feeling will show this by avoiding eye contact, changing the subject or engaging in distracting behavior. Often, this behavior just indicates that your child is not ready to have a direct conversation about troubling feelings. Remember that taking baby steps will get you where you need to go. Some situations, however, require professional help. If your child is engaging in dangerous behavior, or if anger or sadness seems to last for several weeks, it is possible that a more serious emotional condition is emerging. A caring psychotherapist can help your child develop the tools to talk about her feelings and help your family better communicate about these important experiences.