Have you ever said to yourself in a moment of desperation,
“I JUST need them to LISTEN to me!”
I know I did, in the early days of my parenting journey.
My strategy at that point was:
- Repeat myself, calmly about 6 or 7 times, (giving them the benefit of the doubt – maybe they just hadn’t heard me or maybe they’d forgotten the instructions).
- Repeat myself, with a higher volume. (Maybe the thing they were doing made it difficult to hear me?)
- OK, now I’m getting annoyed – Cranking up the volume – NOW, they’re moving!
I WAS TEACHING THEM TO IGNORE ME!
As a friend in a parenting group said a few years later, “I was teaching them to ignore me! I didn’t realise I wasn’t teaching them to listen and pay attention. They knew how many times I’d repeat myself before I got insistent!”
Communication is the first of the Five Secrets to Happy Children for good reason. As part of the framework, it is a vital and fundamental part of the system. Most of us would agree that finding a straightforward way for sending and receiving messages is important.
COMMUNICATION IS A TWO-WAY THING
But here’s the thing. We sometimes focus more on the ‘message-sending’ and forget the ‘message-receiving’ part!
If we’re to have good communication then, we need to make sure that it’s not only the sending of messages that we need to have right, but that all-important receiving part!
In his great book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, Dr Stephen Covey said “Seek First to Understand… Then to Be Understood” (Habit 5). This is great advice.
COMMUNICATION IS ABOUT BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS
Communication isn’t just about messages that we send and receive. It’s about connecting and cooperating on a level with others (children), that fosters a sense of acceptance, respect, safety & trust, and interest. We’re literally building relationships through our communications.
ACTIVE, FULL-ATTENTION LISTENING…
What I learned about listening when I trained as a therapist is that listening and listening well is one of the most important skills that we can develop and practice. Not fancy techniques or amazingly thoughtful questions, but active, full attention listening.
How do we do that though? Especially in a busy family setting, where there’s tons going on and we have many people and things that demand attention. Surprisingly, it’s not as complicated as we may think. It’s simple – but not easy perhaps – to get some small tweaks in place that can help us to listen deeply and actively. And in the spirit of changing ourselves first, it begins with us!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
- We need to listen to ourselves, to become aware of how we’re feeling, because we can’t listen well to anyone else if we have unmet needs.
- We can’t listen well to others if we are feeling emotionally dis-regulated.
CHILDREN’S EMOTIONAL ‘WEATHER’
When they’re little, our kiddos don’t have many tools to help them deal with their feelings – their emotional ‘weather’ and saying what’s going on for them. We teach them this by using our listening skills actively and responding carefully.
Children don’t always have a handle on what they need and the first indication might be a bit of behaviour.
Even we grown-ups can miss this one! Ever been ‘hangry’ and almost bitten someone’s head off? 😉
Listening carefully – and there are some special clues to help with this – can help us be effective at identifying the children’s needs and help them learn to work out what they need too. (More on this later).
TEACHING THROUGH DOING
For us to handle these two things, we need to look beyond the words we’re hearing. We listen on two different levels: The words and the feelings. Kids are reacting to their emotions and needs more than their thinking. (We all do that – but as adults we have (hopefully), learned some emotional regulation to help with that).
What do I mean by emotional regulation? Learning to be aware of, and name, our emotions as they come up and respond in a way that helps us manage those emotions healthily.
Slowing down to hear what’s behind the words gets us lots more information and gives you and your tiny people a space to settle, breathe and get connected.
How we listen now, models how children will listen in the future. We are their role models and if we show them how to listen, they have a model to copy – that’s how we learn things as kids.
- Stop what you’re doing – if it’s safe to do so!
- Get on their level (Sit with them or get on eye-level)
- Put down your phone or turn off distractiions
- Watch them – eye contact and be aware of their body language
- Make gentle guesses about how they ‘might’ be feeling: e.g. “It sounds like you might be feeling angry/sad/lonely/fed up/tired?”
- What do you want to tell me?
- Repeat back the last sentence or last few words. (Not every sentence, but maybe what sounds most important to the child).
- Let them finish what they’re saying before you even begin to respond.
- Listen by showing your attentiveness… nodding, eye contact, holding their hand or making a physical connection.
- If you ask a question, count to (at least) 10 slowly. And… wait for the answer. (Kiddos must process the question first, then think of the answer – just like we do, but they need a bit more time to do this!
- For neurodiverse people, where eye contact is not possible or uncomfortable, sometimes sitting side by side or going for a walk might feel better for listening.
- If you can’t listen now, or for long, let them know when you can – and stick to it. Use familiar forms of time-relative things, such as when we have our snack, after your nap, on the way home from school, etc.
- Mirror gestures, perhaps in less ‘big’ forms -use your hands where they use their arms, or a finger instead of a hand, or small body movements…
- Respond quietly if they’re agitated, or excitedly but quietly if they’re excited for instance.
There are many ways of listening and all take practice, but all will pay dividends if you keep on going with them.
If you’d like to know more about listening – or the Five Secrets to Happy Children, sign up for my newsletter or send me an email and we can talk about working together.