“What did you do in school today?”
Parents often ask what they can say to get their child talking. The secret isn’t about what you say. It’s about how you listen.
The most important skill in talking with anyone, including children, is listening. Not answering, not teaching, not lecturing, not fixing things or offering solutions. Not only do your kids not want that from you, but it would get in the way of them coming up with their own solutions. What your child needs from you is your full attention and empathy. That’s what deep listening is. Here’s how to become a brilliant listener.
1. Pay full attention.
This is your time to listen to your child. It’s a gift to both of you. The shopping list and that problem at the office can wait. Your child knows when you’re really listening. She may not show it, but it breaks her heart when you pretend to and don’t. Turn off your cell phone. Really. She will remember for the rest of her life that her parent turned off the cell phone just to listen to her.
2. Use conversation openers rather than conversation closers.
Conversation openers acknowledge and reflect feelings without judgment or suggestion, rather than shutting down the feelings. They also usually work better than direct questions to help your child feel comfortable opening up to you. Questions put the other person on the spot and can cause defensiveness, especially when they begin with “Why?”
Use Conversation Openers:
- “You sure sound angry at your brother…”
- “You seem worried about the field trip today…”
Avoid Conversation Closers:
- “You just have to make the effort to get along with your brother!”
- “Don’t be such a baby about the field trip; of course you’re going!”
- “Why are you so angry at your brother?”
- “Why don’t you want to go on the field trip?”
3. Use words that validate your child’s experience.
You don’t want to say much; just enough to create safety. Use words like:
- “Oh, no!”
- “No wonder you’re upset.”
- “Nothing seems to be going right for you today.”
- “I’m so sorry I wasn’t there to help.”
- “That must have been so embarrassing! (or upsetting/frustrating/scary/annoying)”
- “That would have hurt my feelings, too.”
4. Empathize instead of probing.
“Tell me how you feel” is not empathy. Empathy is mirroring whatever she’s already showing you.
“You seem sad” or “You’re very quiet tonight,”
followed by a warm smile will encourage her to open up more than badgering her with questions.
5. Don’t put your child on the spot.
Kids often open up more when we aren’t looking directly at them. Your child may feel more comfortable talking while driving in the car, doing dishes, or walking down the street. Sometimes when we turn the lights out at night, kids pour out their souls to us in the dark.
6. Don’t start by trying to change the feeling or cheer her up.
I promise you, empathizing with the bad feeling is the fastest way to let it dissipate. Arguing her out of the bad feeling just invalidates her, or pushes it under to resurface later. That doesn’t mean you magnify or wallow in the negative feeling, just that you acknowledge it and honor her experience. Once she has a chance to notice, accept, and maybe express the feeling, she’ll feel ready for “cheering up” in the sense of a change of scene and topic.
7. Don’t start solving the problem.
The point is to let him get past his upset so that he can begin to think about solutions himself, not to solve it for him. When he expresses his feelings about something, you’ll want to listen and acknowledge, rather than jumping in with solutions. That means you’ll have to manage your own anxiety about the issue.
8. Close your mouth.
You may have to put your hand over your mouth. There are teachable moments, but kids learn most from the opportunity to hear themselves talk and come to their own conclusions. If you give in to the temptation to lecture, your child will clam up. If you want to let your child know you’re listening, make short sounds: “Mmmm….huh….wow!…”
9. Match your reaction with his mood.
Your third grader’s being a bit downcast because his team lost the soccer game doesn’t merit a reaction from you as if someone had died. Conversely, mechanically parroting “It can be hard when your boyfriend splits up with you” is likely to evoke hysteric rage from your fourteen year old. The sweet spot here is to empathize so your child knows you understand what’s she’s feeling, but to also communicate your wordless confidence that this too shall pass, and someday life will be good again.
10. Keep the conversation safe for your child by managing your own emotions.
When your child shares something with you that makes you anxious, use your Pause Button to Stop, Drop your anxiety, and Breathe. Your child needs your help at this moment, not a reprimand. So, for instance, if your child comes home and yells “I hate that teacher! She yelled at me in front of everyone!” you might well want to respond: “What did you do to make her yell?” or “Kyle! Don’t say you hate people.”
But what your child needs to hear is: “Wow! That must have been so embarrassing. No wonder you feel so angry at her!”
If you start feeling responsible (“I could have prevented this!”) or terrified (“I can’t believe this is happening to my child!”) get a grip and put your feelings aside. This isn’t about you, right now, and your upset won’t help. You can process later. What’s most important here is helping your child work through these difficult feelings and possibly come up with a plan of action that works for him.
11. Remember that all your child’s behavior is communication.
Even children who don’t say much want to connect with you. Accept it on their terms. I love this story from Lawrence Cohen, author of Playful Parenting:
“I try to take a broad view of what counts as a connection–it isn’t always a deep conversation. It might be a handshake, a hug, a long look in each other’s eyes, a high-five. It might be, as with a young boy named Pete, having his action figure shake hands with my action figure. After Pete did this, I pointed out to his mom, who had described him as “unable to connect,” how creative he actually was in making contact. He couldn’t handle too much emotional intensity, but he found a way to shake hands with me his way–a playful way.
She said wistfully, “You mean he isn’t going to sit and tell me every detail of his day and every nuance of his feelings?” Sorry. Happily, she was able to start recognizing that Pete’s ways of interacting–like pillow fights and bumping his head into her side–are just as meaningful and full of connection as a deep conversation.”
12. Help your child process emotions with your empathy.
Think of your empathy as a mirror you hold up to your child. Your acknowledgment and acceptance of what he’s feeling — even those more disturbing emotions like jealousy and anger — helps him to accept his own feelings, which is what allows them to resolve. Most of the time, when kids (and adults) feel their emotions are understood and accepted, the feelings lose their charge and begin to dissipate. We don’t have to act on those feelings, or even to like them, merely to acknowledge their presence.
Repressed feelings, on the other hand, don’t fade away, as feelings do when they’ve been acknowledged. Repressed feelings are trapped and looking for a way out. Because they aren’t under conscious control, they pop out unmodulated, when a preschooler socks her sister, or a seven year old has nightmares, or an eleven year develops a nervous tic.
Accepting his feelings and reflecting them does not mean you agree with them or endorse them. You’re showing him you understand, nothing more, and nothing less. And if you’ve ever felt understood, you understand just how great a gift this is.
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