Child: “I don’t think I want to play soccer anymore."
Parent: “Why not? It is so much fun. It is great exercise and you get to be with your friends.”
Child: “Its boring, our team is bad and no one follows the rules.”
Parent: “Well, you need to finish what you started, and you agreed when we signed you up.”
What is your child trying to tell you? Did he just say this once when he was tired and having a bad day, or did he mention it several times over many weeks? Are we just hearing what our children say or are we truly listening? As parents, we have hopes, dreams and expectations for our children. We make decisions out of genuine love and caring to prepare them for life experiences. But there are times when these goals may not be the best fit for our individual children.
Unintentionally, those goals may be more of a projection of what feels right to us from our perspective and not theirs. Children develop at different rates with many factors figuring into the equation. We want to take into consideration the whole picture of how they would perceive the world around them, and that includes many things besides just their age. What is their personality, maturity level or general outlook? How do they interact with their environment on a sensory level? Are they comfortable on a soccer field with people screaming, or kids clustering closely together, pushing and shoving to get at the ball? How do they manage their behavior? Are they easygoing or do they struggle with attention, impulsivity and focus, and need to constantly be moving? What are their social skills? Do they make friends easily or are they shy, cautious or less confident?
Emotionality can be a factor for kids. By nature, some kids are happy, playful and roll with the stresses more easily than others. Some kids worry, feel overwhelmed, scared and anxious. What else may be affecting their lives? Kids deal with struggles academically, sibling rivalry, divorce, health problems, the loss of a friendship, beloved pet or parent or grandparent. Any of these factors alone or in combination impact how our children present and respond, so it is important to include them in our understanding as we really hear what they are saying.
To truly listen:
1. Give full attention: Make eye contact, don’t be doing two things at once, turn off your cell phone.
2. Let the child finish what he is saying without interrupting or giving your opinion.
3. Notice her body language as well as her words.
4. Respond with acknowledgment that you heard what he said: “That’s interesting,” “Glad you told me that,” or “Great idea.”
5. Empathize: “That must have been so exciting,” “That must have been upsetting and frustrating,” or “I would have been sad if that happened to me.”
6. Make sure you understand her correctly: “Did I get this right?” or “Tell me more about that.”
7. Respect his views and do not expect him to agree with all your views.
8. If there needs to be problem solving, give the conversation time to happen. Wait until everyone is calm and able to discuss the issue. No one is listening when there is screaming. Be sure you are both staying on the topic.
Kids frequently complain that their parents are horrible listeners; they take off on one part of what the child says and then give lectures or orations versus asking for further clarification or discussion. At these times, the kids hear the first few words of what their parents are saying, decide if it is “one of those speeches” and stop listening. They feel parents are talking at them and not with them. It increases their sense of not being understood and that what they are thinking is not important.
Good listening promotes positive self image:
1. It gives the child the message that what he says or feels is important. It helps him feel important.
2. It gives her the message that she has strengths and successes in her own listening skills, which reinforces feelings of competence. Inherent in this information is her ability to manage life situations.
3. It builds trust and security in his environment which is em-powering and stabilizing.
4. It builds communication skills.
5. Good listening is a key factor in building positive social and intimate relationships.
Successful listening to our children means we are paying close attention to ourselves and how our own needs and perspectives may be impacting our reactions. We need to focus on a larger picture of what their words, attitudes and behaviors are telling us. It may mean we say less, observe more and empathize with what they are feeling or perceiving. We can encourage better conversations with better listening.
The child who says several times, “I don’t want to play soccer anymore,” may really be saying “I am overwhelmed, uncomfortable and anxious,” or “I am not as athletic as the other kids” or “I am being teased by the other kids.” With better listening we can build on our child’s strengths and assist him in strategies to problem solve or make changes.
More importantly, we can support our children’s interests and help them embrace the sense of self that defines them. Our effective listening reinforces to our children that they are truly heard.
Laurie Pasch is a psychotherapist who specializes in play therapy, individual and family therapy for children, adolescents, young adults and adults at North Shore Center.
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