HOW TO LISTEN TO YOUR CHILDFeb 08, 2024
Originally published Apr. 24th, 2023. Written by Amanda Diekman.
LET’S NAME THE FANTASY
We all want it to be easy and straightforward to listen to what our kids have to say. Wouldn't it be amazing if they calmly, clearly, and gently shared their emotions, their logical reasoning, and their needs? Wouldn't it be helpful if they used words to explain all of this to us, proactively, before they got too worked up? Wouldn't it be lovely if they sat down and went back and forth, answering our questions with honest, practical responses?
LET’S ALSO NAME WHAT REALLY MATTERS
Hearing from our children is what matters most. We want to communicate that we are listening and that we get it. That hearing from them matters more than our fantasy, which is laden with heavy and unrealistic expectations. We want to hear from our children as they communicate in the ways that they are able. Dropping all of these intense demands around how we communicate with our kids will open up channels of connection and trust, which is what matters most.
We are going to hold onto the "what" while being flexible on the "how." The "what" is listening deeply to our children. The "how" is all the expectations that we pile onto the process of listening. When we get free of those expectations, we find that we can listen to EVERYTHING: emotions, behaviors, angry words.
LISTENING CAN BE REALLY HARD
I wish I wasn't alive.
You're the worst mom in the world.
I should just jump out of the window.
Why am I like this?
I am a terrible kid.
Everyone hates me.
Sometimes our kids have some really dark, hard, and honestly frightening things to say. They use words that scare us. We don't want to hear this truth. We push it away, deny it, minimize it.
Or we believe it. Their words connect with a story we heard when we were young, or something we say to ourselves in our more dysregulated moments. And so, we agree. ("I AM the worst mom in the world. If I was a good mom, we wouldn't be here. I'm failing.") The problem is that this misses the truth that our kids are truly communicating. They need our help in getting through this crisis that they're facing, and we cannot be their steady anchor when our own trauma swallows us up.
ATTUNE TO THEIR BODY
First ask: What is their body telling you? As hard as it may be to experience, it is better for a child to be actively engaged in communicating with you (even if it's hitting, banging on the wall, or screaming) than for them to be withdrawn, shut down, empty, hollow. This has been a challenging mindset shift for me. But one worth fighting for. I want my child to keep communicating with me, even when that communication is aggressive or painful to hear. I want them engaged with me, even when it hurts. We don't want them to shut down or shut us out.
LISTEN TO THEIR REQUESTS
Children are often asking for exactly what they need, and we are struggling to believe that they mean it-- especially when it comes to asking for space. Children will say, "Go away! Leave me alone!" and we do not leave. My son used to need to clear the entire floor of our house. He needed us upstairs so he could have the entire downstairs for him to calm down. At first I resisted, simply because it seemed like he was asking for too much. But when I trusted that he knew what he needed, I was able to listen and respond, and he was able to calm.
LEAVE OPEN SPACE
My children do a lot of communicating with me, but they don't want to hear much back. One of the ways I got off track with parenting was believing that I needed to do a lot of verbal acknowledgement of their feelings and a lot of narrating of their experience. "That sounds frustrating. You're stomping your foot, you look mad. I see how mad you are..." and on and on. It turned out that all of those words were really getting in the way of our communication. When I began to quiet my voice and leave open space, I learned a lot more about my children. Now my default is to stay quiet.
LOOK FOR WAYS TO BUILD TRUST
A key part of communication is to build a mutually beneficial loop of trust. This trust makes it easier to communicate, to listen, and to act on what we hear. If your child tells you not to tell anyone what she says (even if has loudly whispered her favorite color in your ear), consider this an opportunity to become a trusted conversation partner who will honor her needs. If your child seems hesitant to introduce himself to a new kid at the park, honor that communication and affirm the decision. Trust will make all of your conversations flow more easily.
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