Getting Your Child to Talk to You

“You never listen to me!”

Many children feel that there is no point in talking to their parents. From experience they have learned that their parents are very poor listeners. In fact, their parents seem to want to talk a lot more than they want to listen; they are more interested in getting their point (or their sermon!) across than finding out what their child has to say. Moreover, parents tend to correct their child’s thoughts and feelings instead of accepting them (“You certainly do NOT want to quite school! How could you ever consider an idea as crazy as that? You need to complete university if you want to find a decent job…etc.”) Rather than subject themselves to this kind of “conversation,” kids would rather keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves.

And yet, parents usually want their kids to talk to them. They want to know what’s going on in their child’s mind and life. They also want to be able to guide their youngster appropriately. Moreover, they want to enjoy the strong, positive bond that happens between parents and their children when communication is good. Interestingly, the more skilled a parent is at listening, the more he or she will be able to accomplish all this. Fortunately, it’s easy to become a skilled listener.

Consider the following tips for listening to children in positive and productive ways:

Pause
It helps to stop what you’re doing even for just a minute or two to really look at your child when you are conversing with him or her. Stop cooking or reading just for a bit while you look directly into your child’s eyes. Even if you go back to your task while continuing the conversation, those few minutes will have made a significant impact. Of course, if you have a bit more time, then give your child your undivided attention even longer. Focused attention is a precious gift – especially in today’s world!

Be Aware of Your Body Language
Try to lean towards your child when he is sharing, in a manner that communicates presence. “Presence” is a way of being with someone that is supportive – even healing. It conveys caring, interest, involvement and connection. “Presence” is conveyed with posture, proximity and eye contact. Don’t look down, fidget with papers on the table or check the mail. Just sit still for a few minutes. Again, it is not necessary to give your child an hour of your undivided attention. Any number of minutes is beneficial. Do what you can.

Sum It Up
Your child doesn’t know if you heard what he or she said unless you give feedback – a short summary of the words that were spoken. To communicate to your child that you are listening, just re-state his or her main message in your own words. This is a technique called reflecting or mirroring. It conveys understanding and connection. Moreover, this strategy also helps you stay calm in what might otherwise be a stressful conversation. Sometimes a child is saying something that might trigger worry, panic or anger in a parent. By repeating back the child’s general message, the parent allows his or her own emotions to settle down. In fact, allowing the child to talk and talk while you repeat back and repeat back, gives you plenty of time to turn off your own adrenaline. You might decide that you don’t even need to respond to the child in that moment – that you need time to think about what he is saying and you will get back to him in a few hours or a few days!

Look for Feelings and Emotions
Effective listening is not only about paying attention to the words that are being said, but also to the message that is being conveyed. The message is carried by feelings. Does the child look worried, relieved, upset or mad when he or she is speaking? These emotions are carrying the really important message within the communication. Summarize the words and then offer a guess at the feelings that the child is feeling as he or she is speaking. For instance,  you might say something like, “So you’re saying you really want to go to camp. I see how excited you feel about the idea,” or “So you’re saying you don’t want to go camp – you look pretty unhappy about the idea.” To get a sense of your child’s feelings, listen to his tone and of voice and volume, look at his facial expression and body language and consider the type of words he is using to make his point. Put all of these markers together to decide whether he is happy, sad, mad or scared. Then tell your child what you guess he might be feeling. If you’re wrong, the child will correct you. If you’re right, the child will feel really understood. In either case, the child will appreciate the work you are doing to try to connect at a deeper level. Keep in mind that all feelings are just feelings. Showing your child that you can name and accept his feelings creates safety and closeness.

After you have conveyed understanding of your child’s communication, be sure to ASK the child what he needs or wants. Continue to be on the listening side of the communication until your child asks you for your own thoughts and opinions. Or, after you have done a really thorough job of listening, you can ask the child, “Would you like my opinion on this?” or “Do you want to hear an idea I have?” and so on. Once the child has indicated an interest in your input, then you can offer feedback or practical suggestions. In short, name and reflect your child’s thoughts and feelings FIRST and solve problems SECOND. You’ll find that your child will be much more receptive to you and your ideas because you have done such a good job of listening!

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