Tips on Listening to Your Child

In this article, you will find:

Create a special place or time for listening

It's a Good Idea!

If you already have established special time with your child you might use that time to listen to your child. But remember that not all truths or confidences require a big listen. Some announcements, important truths, and confidences need a response of silence, or need time to sit and breathe.

And sometimes you can't rearrange things. You're not superhuman, you know, and sometimes listening—which does take time and requires full attention—will just have to wait. If you need to delay the listening:

  • Acknowledge the child's need to be heard. Stop for 5 seconds, 10 seconds, a minute and look your child in the eyes. “This is not a good time, Paula. Let's talk about it later.” (It helps to name the “it” you're planning on talking about specifically so the child really feels heard, acknowledged, and seen.)
  • Make an appointment. Any child over three will be able to understand the concept (even though the younger ones' senses of time aren't very good yet). “Paula, may I make an appointment with you to talk about this after lunch? We'll sit on the porch. Okay?”
  • Follow through. It's up to you to remember, and it's vital that you appear at the established time and place, ready to listen. Don't be a flake—kids hate that. Why should they trust and respect a flake?

Active Listening: Your First Line of Defense

Here's a tool that works especially well when you feel stalemated or frustrated with a conversation. You can actively listen anywhere, as long as you pay full attention and do it deliberately. You can do it by first announcing you'll do it, or you can do it without drawing attention to the technique. Either way is effective.

Here's your three-step active listening formula:

  • Focus your attention. Have the child talk to you. Listen to the child's thoughts and feelings until he is finished.
  • Paraphrase the thoughts and feelings you heard back to him without interpretation. That means simply repeating back what he said and what you heard. “You say you hit Angela because she's an ugly girl. You were angry with her. Did I get that right?”
  • Allow the child to correct what you've said. “No, I meant that I hit her after she said I was ugly, and I said she was ugly, and she made me cry. Why did she say that, Dad?” (See, the conversation has opened up already!)
Words to Parent By

Active listening means trying to understand the child's thoughts and feelings by listening silently and then paraphrasing—saying back again as closely as possible without interpretation—what has been said.

What are the direct results of active listening?

  • Active listening helps the child explore his own feelings and thoughts on a deeper level. Sometimes feelings are so complex or overwhelming that a child may not know how he feels, especially if he's very upset at the time. Active listening can help you help him figure it out.
  • Active listening raises a child's senses of self-worth and self-respect. You are listening to him, you are respecting his feelings and ideas, you are taking the time to find out what really matters to him. Getting respect increases his self-respect, and not just a little bit, either! Paying attention and listening well are the things that matter most to a child!
  • Active listening helps build your sense of empathy. When you've truly heard the child's ideas, thoughts, and concerns, you'll be able to feel what he is feeling.
  • Active listening gives your kid the opportunity to correct you. After you paraphrase, he can tell where you've misheard, and correct your misunderstandings. By hearing his words reflected back at him, he can clarify to himself what he means.

Beware: Evils lurk in the house of active listening. Don't open these doors:

  • Watch that you hear what is being said, not what you expect to hear, and not what you want to hear. Expectations and desires can be seductive and dangerous.
  • Watch that you aren't focusing on the method of delivery. It's not how it's being said, but what's being said. Ignore the swear words, the finger in the nose, the mumbling, and the slouched posture, unless they are part of what is being communicated.
  • Listen with more than your ears. Nonverbal signals are important, too, and meaning is transmitted through all of our senses.
  • Don't be too literal. Some kids exaggerate, some use slang. Listen for the message.
  • Be careful not to let your feelings about what is being said interfere with your listening. Kids know just how to bug their parents, and they'll try to, at any given opportunity.
  • Be careful not to let your beliefs and attitudes interfere with your listening. Even if you are hearing things that totally offend your moral values, complete the exercise. You can process, judge, and respond later—your job here is to gather information and understand what the child is saying. Let your own ideas go, just for a moment! Stop, take a deep breath, concentrate, and just listen. Listen to the child's perceptions. You need to hear to understand.
  • Don't ignore the emotion. If you're listening only for the facts, you'll likely miss some important information. When you paraphrase, include how you think the child is feeling (and let him correct you if you are wrong). How the child feels about what he's telling you may be just as important as what he's saying.