Soon after you move in, you may face your first big experience with stepfamily conflict. You may feel resentful or shut out, the kids may feel rejected and furious, and your Sweetie may feel utterly and completely caught in the middle.
The active listening exercise below is an excellent tool for improving household communication. Take a few minutes and try this. It can't hurt matters (sounds like they're pretty miserable as is), and it can help. Are you afraid you'll hear some things you'd rather not know about? Hey, better now than later. Resentments and resistance do not just fade away.
Before You Begin, Why Bother?
- Active listening helps the child by raising her sense of self-worth and self-respect. Whether or not your own child or your stepchild-to-be expresses it to you, your thoughts and your opinions of her matter terribly to her. The fact that you are listening to her concerns will really help her feel better about herself and your relationship.
- Active listening is a tool for building empathy in you. Once you truly hear the child's concerns, you'll be able to feel a bit of what he is feeling.
- Using active listening will help you better understand what the kid means. None of us are completely clear, but kids (especially kids who are churning inside with emotions) can be totally muddy in what they're saying. Active listening can help you decode the meaning.
- Active listening gives the child the opportunity to correct you. In other words, you paraphrase, and he tells you you're out to lunch. That's good! That way you can fix up any misunderstandings (and in a step situation, there are often many).
- By using active listening, you can help the child explore her own thoughts and feelings on a deeper level. Things may be so complex that she may not know how she feels.
Here's How to Do It
You can actively listen anywhere, as long as you pay full attention and do it deliberately. You can say, “I want to hear what you think about blah blah blah and I'm not going to say anything until you're done. When you finish, I'll tell you what you said and what I heard.” If that feels like it might really scare the kid, try a casual approach. Simply listen silently and then paraphrase without calling attention to what you're doing: “So you're saying blah blah blah blah. You feel blah blah blah. Did I get that right?” You'll get the hang of it.
Wait! Hold It! Watch Out!
Things can go wrong in active listening when you make these mistakes:
- When you hear only what you expect or want to hear. (This is a biggie!)
- When you allow your beliefs and attitudes to interfere with your listening. I know, you know her biomom is loony and has a bad attitude problem, but try to get past that to listen to the child's perceptions. You can process later that stuff about how you shouldn't be allowed to eat lunch in the same county that the ex was born in.
- When you allow your feelings about what's being said to affect how you are listening (same type of thing as above).
- When you pay attention only to how the information is being communicated, not what is actually being said. That means don't try to correct Angelique's posture while she is talking to you about serious stuff.
- When you are too literal. Kids have their own dialects or ways of speaking, and if you listen to the words too exactly, you're gonna get lost.
- When you listen only for the facts. How the child feels about what he's telling you may be just as important. When you paraphrase back what's been said, make sure to include how you think the child is feeling. Let him correct you if you are wrong.