As parents, we want our children’s world, and our family, to be happy places where everything is going well. We want to fix our children’s troubles, solve their problems, and give them the advice they need to avoid difficulty in the future. Unfortunately, guided by these noble goals, we often respond to our children in ways that shortchange them by giving our children the message that their feelings aren’t OK, by robbing them of the chance to learn to solve their own problems, and by being so unsympathetic that our children eventually quit talking to us about their problems.
Imagine that you come home after a long day at work, and say,
“I had a terrible day at work! I’m tired of the way my boss treats me!”
Imagine how you feel when your partner responds:
“Oh, knock it off! In this economy, you should be thankful you even have a job, instead of complaining about it all the time!”
“What you need is just to sit down with her and tell her she can’t get away with that.”
“I’m sure you’re over-reacting. You know how sensitive you are. You’re probably blowing it all out of proportion.”
“What did you do to annoy her? You must have done something to her!”
“Well, I think you’re great at your job, so what does it matter what your boss thinks?”
“You always have such a problem when your work is criticized. You should be more confident in your own abilities. I wonder why criticism’s such a threat to you?”
When our children are upset, they don’t want us to moralize, instruct, minimize or deny their feelings, be overly reassuring, or analyze them, either. These responses hardly leave them open to our wisdom.
Now imagine your partner says:
“Sounds like you had a long day! Problems with your boss can make the whole job feel awful! I bet you could use a hug.”
That’s what our kids want, too- to know that they’re being listened to, and that their feelings are understood. (This leaves their energy free to think about responding to their problem, instead of using it up getting angry at their parents.) This is called reflective or active listening, and it’s really just listening and responding with a look or a statement that shows you heard. It’s a smile and nod, a well placed “Mm hmm”, or in it’s longer form, sounds something like this:
“Daddy, the boys won’t let me play!”
“Sounds like you’re feeling left out. That can feel sad.”
Instead of “Well, they told you that you could play later.”
“Why did you have to come and spoil everything?”
“I bet you wish you could make me just disappear!”
Instead of “Because it’s 5:00 and dinner’s almost ready, that’s why!”
“Send that baby back!”
“It sure can be a pain having a new baby sister around.”
Instead of “We didn’t send YOU back and you cried more than this!”
“I can’t find my baseball mitt anywhere!”
“How frustrating! I hate when I can’t find things.”
Instead of “If you put it away like I told you, you’d find it once in a while.”
“Jenny always gets to go with you!”
“It doesn’t seem fair to you that you have to stay home.”
Instead of “Jenny does not always get to go with us. She stays home plenty, too.”
“But you promised you’d play a game with me!”
“You’re disappointed that we didn’t have time. Me too!”
Instead of “Well, I didn’t know the car was going to break down when I promised. I had to fix it or nobody could go anywhere tomorrow. It’s not like I had a choice, you know.”
When we listen supportively to our children we give them several gifts:
- Since we’ve accepted their negative feelings, they don’t have to “prove” anything by being consumed by them. They’re free to move past those feelings, and move on to accepting or responding to the situation.
- Since we stand by as sympathetic support, not fixers, our children practice coming up with their own solutions to problems, rather than being dependent on us to solve their problems for them.
- Since they know we’ll lend a supportive ear, our kids know that they have a safe place to come to, even when they get into trouble.
- Our children learn from our model how to be a supportive listener with their siblings and friends.
The irony, (and another benefit of being a supportive listener), is that by resisting the urge to jump in with our opinions or to take over our children’s problems, we actually end up having more influence over the choices they make. This happens because when kids perceive us as supportive listeners, as people who are on their side, they are less defensive, and have less need to protect their independence by refusing to listen to us. They are more open to hearing what we have to say, and more open to looking at the situation from our side, because whether we agreed with them or not, we were there to fully listen to their view, their side, first.