Listening to Each Other, Part 1: Children and Adolescents
Updated: Nov 3
Many times when I see children, adolescents, and couples, there is a lot of difficulty in communicating because of people’s inability to listen to each other. Listening is more than just not talking while the other person talks. That probably sounds obvious, but there is so much more to listening then the absence of interrupting someone. When you listen, there is an intention. The intention could be to gather information to refute in an argument, to find out the other person’s perspective, or to enter the world of the other and understand their unique perspective. The latter intention, as difficult as it can be sometimes, is probably the most successful and healthy intention to hold when you’re communicating with someone or listening to them. You’d be surprised how often children would love to be able to tell their parents about significant events in their lives, or even every day occurrences like which friendships are doing well, what they find interesting, and about potential boyfriends and girlfriends would like to pursue.
However, I hear quite often that the child or adolescent doesn’t think that the adult will take them seriously, or that they will get in trouble for what they say. Therefore, they keep it secret and it often causes emotional upset. It’s hard for anyone, however all they are, to hold the secret for a long time, especially if it’s something that really matters. The art of listening requires patience, emotional regulation on the listeners part, and skill to give people the space to say what’s on their heart.
Let's focus now on how to listen to children. I thought I would start with children and parents, since that is often one of the more difficult relationships to navigate through the child’s formative years. Listening does not necessarily mean that you give a child whatever he or she wants. It does, however mean that you respect the person enough to give them a chance to say their piece without interrupting, charging, or laying down the law immediately.
To begin, it seems important to know how you related to your own parents. How did they treat you, and did they listen to you? If they did, then you are fortunate and have a good template to use with your own children; perhaps you only need to modify it to fit your child’s age, the modern times, and what you believe is the best way to communicate with your child. If you came from an abusive childhood, where your needs and desires were not heard, it will be more challenging to know how to relate to your own child. Of course, there are also temperamental factors that enter into whether you can communicate easily with her child.
Some kids are somewhat docile and easy going, and they take direction better than more willful, strong headed children. However, this does not mean that you should not try to communicate with your more spirited child. It just means that it will be a little more challenging. If the way your parents treated you is getting in the way of having a good relationship with your own children, it is probably a good idea to get some counseling to help clear out destructive patterns that you learn from your own parents.
Let me start with some obvious, but basic premises for communicating with your child. First, recognize that your child is unique individual human being. This means that your child is a separate human being from you. He or she has preferences, personality traits, and needs and desires that you may not be able to relate to. His or her developmental stage and needs are important factors in how you talk to them and what you say. Your child is also living in a different time and in a different culture from how you were raised. That doesn’t mean that good basic rules that you learned from your own childhood need to be discarded, but it does mean that you should take this into consideration when listening to the child’s needs or desires.
Second, your child is just as important as any other human being on the face of the planet. This may seem ridiculously plain to you, but a lot of times children are treated as low they are not important and their opinions don’t matter. True, we cannot indulge every whim and strange idea they may come up with that we also need to listen seriously to what they had to say. Even within a request or statement that seems far-fetched or outlandish, there is important information to be gleaned about their psychology. We need to consider this when hearing what they had to say.
Third, just because we are listening to the child does not mean that they will get their way or that we will lose authority or control as parents. They may be frustrated that you did not grant their request or permit them to do something that would not be right for them, but you can at least afford them the respect of listening without shutting them down.
Fourth, just as we don’t want them to disrespect us, we need to keep our language and habits respectful and considerate of their humanity. Insults, sarcasm and name-calling do not engender respect between parent and child, no matter who is speaking.
Fifth, we cannot ignore or neglect our relationship with our children for years or months and then expect the communication to go smoothly. Just as with any relationship, we need to have regular times to check in and communicate with them. No matter how busy our work schedules, their activities, or other competing interests, there needs to be a time and a place to touch base with them and we need to hold that sacred.
How does all this translate into action? Here are some tips based on the preceding principles.
· Make regular, scheduled periods of time when you can talk to your child or adolescent uninterrupted by anything else for at least a half an hour to an hour per week. If you can’t manage this, there is something wrong and you need to find time to make that happen.
· When you talk to each other, you can have a little prop like a talking stick. The purpose of the talking stick is for each of you to have uninterrupted time to be heard. It might also help to have an egg timer. You might start the meeting with listing one thing that each of you liked about the other’s behavior during the week, and one thing that you found challenging. Each item should take about 5 to 10 minutes max. During that time, if you want to comment or make an addendum to the statement’s the other person is making, write it down. Do not interrupt the other person, no matter how much you want. You are not only teaching the child how to value him or herself, that you are also teaching them how to communicate with other people in their lives. This is crucial.
· It may be very tempting to lose your patience with someone who is not getting to the point or is rambling. Consider this when you are listening to them. However, now is not the time to criticize. Now is the time to listen with an open mind and an open heart.
· You may have heard about "I feel statements" from pop psychology. Unfortunately, its misuse has given nonviolent communication a bad rap. In its original form, this is based on the work of Marshall Rosenberg. When used correctly, this can be an effective way of communicating with other people without weighing Blaine or shaming people. However, a lot of times people just say “I feel that,” and then state of thought or an opinion. This is an incorrect way to use that model of communication. For instance, you might say, “I feel hurt or angry because I thought that you weren’t listening” rather than “I feel that you are neglecting your work and not listening to me.” It may not seem like a big difference when you first look at it, but it is different.
In the first example, you are owning your feelings and stating your fact as your interpretation of the events. In the second example, you are simply stating your opinion with I feel in front of it, which does very little to further your cause. Feelings should be restricted to emotion words like angry, sad, anxious, nervous, happy, etc.
· Obviously, and to not insult each other, criticize each other, or make fun of each other during the conversation. If this happens, or if you find yourself losing your temper with the person, say “I’m feeling too upset to talk right now. Let’s try this again in a half an hour.” Here you are teaching your child affect regulation, which is a fancy term for learning how to recognize and control of your emotional reaction. When you’re able to do this, and your child is able to do this, your communication will go much smoothly and successfully.
· Progress, not perfection – it may feel awkward and strange to do this new way of communicating at first. It may even seem a little strange and you may feel kind of silly. However, you are just learning, and so is your child, so please be kind to yourself and to them as you both learn to navigate the new territory of effective communication.
· Assume nothing when you talk to your child. Listen to them as if it were the first time you were ever speaking to. Did not think that you know what’s in their head hard better than they do. Especially with older children, they will pick up on that and a few treat them like babies, they will resent.
· If the child want something that we cannot give them, for either practical or safety reason, we can explain that we understand that this would make them happy, but we cannot accommodate their wishes and stated. We can give them alternatives in the form of suggestions, or we can have a discussion about why they want what they want and come up with another way to meet those needs, but just refusing without having a discussion about it might make them not one to tell us what they want in the future. From what I’ve seen, this leads to resentment and lack of cooperation in the future.
Hopefully some of these guidelines can help you communicate better with the children in your lives. I have the luxury of not having any authority over children and teens I talked to them professionally, other than to abide by is the office. Therefore, I know that I have a different relationship to children than their parents. However, I do think there are things can help parents communicate more effectively with their kids. I hope that these tips can help you communicate better with your child or adolescent.