Listen, Look for the Message, and Determine Your Child's Needs

What is your child really trying to say? Learn to study your child's behavior for a clear indication of his needs.

In this article, you will find:

Why is your child misbehaving?

Listen, Look for the Message, and Determine Your Child's Needs

Element number 10 of the 12 Disciplinary Elements is to understand misbehavior. Take it from the experts, there's a reason for every misbehavior, and when you figure out the reason, you're more than halfway home to stopping it. Fine. So why is your child misbehaving?

Gathering Information Through Proactive Listening

Take your good-but-misbehaving kid aside, take a deep breath, and listen to his side of the story. You want to hear about what was happening when the incident occurred, what happened before and after, and how he feels about it.

Listening effectively—especially when you've been upset by disturbing news—is very difficult. Kids are often the opposite of clear (they often don't understand their actions, themselves). Listening takes practice, and most of us don't have much experience. Don't expect perfection the first time you try it. Practice, and determination, are the key.

Here's a “guided” listening technique called proactive listening, developed by communications expert William Sonnenschein. It takes active listening one step further, and it's most useful when there's specific information (like why Tommy cut off all of his sister's hair) that you need to elicit.

In active listening, you, the listener, are in a passive role. In proactive listening, you, the listener, guide the course of the conversation through asking pertinent, probing questions. Remember, though, it's still a listening (rather than a talking) technique, which means it's your job to hear what your child says, not to control the content. Here are some reasons to try proactive listening:

  • To get and keep the conversation on track. You're on the hunt for information, and your child may not know what's important to say. As an effective proactive listener (silent and stealthy) you can gently steer the conversation over to the important subjects.
  • To delve deeper into the depths of detail. Your child may be glossing over important facts because he doesn't know what you need to hear. Or he might be trying to hide information (the little scamp!). By asking the right questions, you can cut through to the deep details.
  • To help your kid express himself. By directing him with your questions, you hear what he is trying to communicate and he (bonus points!) may begin to better understand his own thoughts and feelings about the incident.

Ready? Here's how:

  • Ask an open-ended question. The best proactive listening questions can't be easily answered with a simple yes or no. Say, for instance that you're trying to understand why Tommy chopped Belinda's hair off at the roots. You might ask, “What were you feeling before you cut Belinda's hair?”
  • Don't react to the answer! Say Tommy says, “I was really happy because I wanted to get back at her and I knew this would make her cry.” Don't stop the “exercise” to make judgments or criticize—you'll have lots of time for that later. It won't help for you to scream, “You were happy to make her cry? You insensitive little—” Listen quietly. Allow time for the child to fully finish.
  • Get more information. As you listen, find a cue to an area you feel needs to be explored, and ask another question about what has been said. “What did you want to get back at her for?” Now you're getting some information. (Hey, this isn't the end of it, you can't let Tommy just go back to chopping hair—but that's the only part we're dealing with here—the information-gathering aspect.
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