Have you ever been in a situation where you just wanted to vent about something and the person listening to you stepped in quickly with advice on how to solve the situation or worse yet, told you in so many words that you were overreacting? Most all of us have been in that situation either as the person listening or the person venting. It can be frustrating from both sides: for the person venting, the feeling is one of being cut off, misunderstood, dismissed, put down or unimportant.
The person listening may find themselves feeling impatient, anxious, annoyed, helpless, or even angry. Listening is an art, and it's not hard to learn once you understand the hows and whys of it. Listening is a key activity between parents and children, whether your child is 3 years old or 17. It is also a major facilitator of connection between parent and child, and the foundation for problem solving. Let's start with the why factor.
Why You Should "Just Listen"
As I've touched on above, listening is a vehicle for making an emotional connection with someone, and in this case we're focusing on the connection between parents and their children or teens. By listening carefully, with interest, and with empathy, we send the message that we care, are emotionally available, understand and accept. These four messages are really powerful and lay the groundwork for any and all other communication you have or ever will have with your children. Without those messages being heard and felt, children are reluctant to confide in us or trust us. They will look elsewhere for that emotional connection.
I worked with a father who had a 13-year-old daughter that he brought into therapy because she seemed angry most of the time. He complained that she was flippant, moody, and generally uncooperative. She was doing well in school and there were no complaints from teachers, but at home she was "unbearable." If Mom or Dad said anything in the way of a question or command, she responded by rolling her eyes or became sullen and quiet or at worst, was openly hostile. This is not an unusual scenario at this age and is a common reason parents bring their children in for counseling. In essence, they are at their wits end and hope if they drop their young teen off in my office, I'll fix them and they'll come out with a smile on their face, love in their hearts, and a new cooperative communication style that will make life easier. I always have to remind parents that I'm not a magician, nor is counseling a quick fix. Also, when it comes to children and teens, the parents almost always have a hand in the problem. They may have great intentions and no shortage of love, but they have often unwittingly participated in creating the problem. My job is to sort that out and work on helping everyone to make changes.
So back to Dad and his 13 year old who I will call Melissa. When I met with Melissa over the course of several months, I chatted with her about her life, her parents, and mostly about her friends. She was an 8th grader in a smaller school where there were a lot of cliques, especially among the girls. By her descriptions these cliques each had a core group of girls that formed the inner coalition, and changing members that came in and out of the clique depending on the emotional drama of the day or week. As she talked about the cliques, it became apparent that she was having great difficulty in finding a place in any one group. She felt isolated, disliked and unpopular. She talked in great detail about the daily dramas and conflicts that occurred between some of the girls. As she felt more comfortable with me, she also described her interactions with various girls and cliques, and her struggles to successfully deal with them. What was striking about these conversations is that Melissa said she never talked to her parents about these problems. I asked why as I knew her parents were interested. She said that as soon as she would relate any story, her Mom (or Dad if he was the recipient) would interrupt her and tell her she needed to stay out of the drama and just be a kid. She was never able to really get into or finish a story, and even if she did get partly into it, she would get advice on how to fix it, very often tainted with criticism in some way of her behavior. As such, Melissa didn't talk to her parents about these problems. With her permission, I brought the parents in and relayed some of the issues and stories Melissa had told me during our sessions. I asked the parents if they were aware of these situations. They were not. They complained that Melissa never talked to them about what's going on at school.
The real problem in this situation is that Melissa had lost her connection with her parents as someone she could go to, talk to, and be understood and accepted by. She saw them as taking the side of the other girls or dismissing her feelings altogether. She was resentful and at the same time felt helpless and powerless to deal with the real emotional distress she was feeling at school. Clearly her parents loved her, but they had lapsed into the philosophy that many parents have which is that school drama is just that – school drama . . . and the best way to deal with it is to just stay out of it. They felt they were being helpful and had no idea that Melissa felt the way she did.
Melissa's story is not at all unusual. Many parents don't really know what's going on with their kids on an emotional level because they don't know how to listen in such a way that their kids will come to them. It's not a matter of love or caring, but more a matter of being available in the right way. If a parent can really listen, they will create a safe emotional place for their children to be honest and expose their real feelings and problems. Not only that, this type of communication between parent and child will foster a connection that is deep and intimate, not to mention highly influential which is what parents want and need as their children move further out into the world.
How To Listen
Now let's talk about how to listen because there are some specific guidelines that make it fairly easy. For starters, listening means just that – LISTEN! This requires using a lot of silence or minimal responses. I think this is the hardest part of listening for parents. Read the scenario below from 11-year-old Ricky.
Ricky plays little league baseball and has been struggling with his batting of late. He strikes out often and at practice he's been taking some heat from the coach and other players. Mom picks him up from practice, and when he gets in the car he is silent and obviously upset. Here's the conversation:
Mom: Tough practice?
Ricky: Yeah (tearing up)
Mom: Wanna talk about it? I'll listen. (Stays silent)
Ricky: (After a bit of time passes) I stink! (More silence and then...) I struck out three times today! Every time I was up at bat (almost yelling)!
Mom: That doesn't feel good. I can see it really has upset you.
Ricky: (Talking fast now) The coach rolled his eyes at me the third time and Joey and Brandon were hooting and calling me a girl, and everybody was laughing. I HATE BASEBALL!!!!! (Now the tears are flowing)
Mom: I'm sorry you're feeling so upset but I can understand why. Being made fun of really hurts.
Ricky: It hurts a lot! They're sooooo mean!
Mom: They are. (More silence)
Ricky: (Almost home now) Thanks mom. I feel a little better, but I just wish I could hit better. What can I do?
Mom: Do you have any ideas?
Ricky: (Hesitant) . . . well . . . you know the assistant coach? Do you think he would coach me extra? For my batting?
Mom: You can always ask.
Ricky: Yeah, I could. Okay, I'll ask him tomorrow. What if he says no?
Mom: Well then maybe we could find somebody else. Let me know what he says.
This is a short conversation whereas most such conversations are longer and take more time, but it will serve to help identify the main elements of listening. They are as follows:
Start with an empathetic observation or statement based on what's presented to you. This may be in response to what your child has said, or the look on their face, or any expression of the current emotional state or problem. Make it short and genuine. In the above scenario, that statement was "Tough practice?"
Extend an invitation to talk about it. "Wanna talk about it? I'll listen." That's a great invitation because it not only invites conversation, but also assures the child you are present and attentive.
As the story unfolds, you comment on the feelings presented. "That doesn't feel good. I can see it really has upset you." This is a very important component and the one where most of us go astray. The comment should be short and empathetic without any agendas other than to show understanding and acceptance of the feeling. It would be quite easy to jump on the bandwagon and verbally assault the offenders, in this case the other boys and the coach. A statement like this might be "I'd like to give those boys a piece of my mind. What are their names? I'm calling their parents tonight!" Or maybe launch into a lecture if you feel the situation is the result of something your child has done or not done. "You know, you really don't practice batting enough. What do you expect?" What your child needs at this point is to know that you understand how he feels. He needs to feel that you are strong enough to handle his feelings without going off the deep end, and you can just be there until he works it through.
Containing essentially means just being quiet and sitting with the feelings until they diffuse or subside. This means that you have to get comfortable with or at least accept that your child is going to be in pain for the time being and you should not rescue him. He needs to learn that he can handle strong feelings and that they don't last, and they will not destroy him. By sitting attentively with him and being quiet you are helping him contain the intensity of the feeling. Eventually he will handle those feelings more easily when not in your presence. That's the goal. By all means, do not begin talking about something else to change the subject or launch into a speech about your child's many assets. Both actions say that you can't stand the feelings. Remain quiet.
FIND A SOLUTION
The last step is to help find a solution. Sometimes the solution is simply to allow venting and diffusion of the emotions. As you get toward the end of the conversation and your child seems to be out of things to say, you can add "Wanna say anything else?" or simply "Are you finished? Have you said everything you wanted to say?" That's a great closer and if there is more you'll hear it. If not, you've done your job. Most often, if you use enough silence throughout the conversation which means just waiting after your child has said something to see if something more will come into his mind, your child will come up with his own solution. In the above scenario Ricky decided to get more batting coaching and mom let him know that she was available to help with this endeavor if his initial plan didn't work. This is the optimum situation: allowing the creative process to take place on its own. If the problem seems like one that really needs some discussing and your child is clearly stuck, you can ask "Would like some help with this?" You can then give some advice, but tread carefully here. Don't let advice lapse into a lecture or criticism. The best way to give advice is to use yourself as an example: "If I were in your place, I might try . . . . ." This is your chance to teach your child how to solve problems. You might find that problem solving is better approached in another conversation after the emotional compass has returned to neutral. You'll be able to feel out the natural progression as you go.
What Gets in the Way of Listening?
There are many things that can get in the way of listening. You may be pushed for time and you simply can't afford to go through a lengthy process to help your child calm down. An example would be in the morning, as you are getting ready for school and work. You might be in a location that doesn't allow for such a conversation such as a social gathering where there is no private space. In these cases, you do the best you can and let your child know that you can see she is upset and you want to hear about it later. You might even say when later will be and then be sure and follow up. Most likely it will have been forgotten by that time, but if not, you will have a chance to help her deal with her distress.
The obstacles that are more difficult to overcome are those that aren't so obvious. These are the obstacles that pertain more to you, the listener. I should say "parent listeners" because these obstacles are mostly related to being parents. Any time you are listening to your child or teen talk about something, you register it in a number of ways. The most obvious take is the face value interpretation which is simply to hear the content as it is spoken and take it in. However, most of us don't do just that. There are layers of interpretation that occur almost automatically, some of them without registering at all. What does register is our own emotional reaction to these interpretations which come out as guilt, fear, anxiety, annoyance, and sometimes outright dislike. When all of these kinds of reactions are coming up inside of us as we listen, it is quite difficult to be attentive and calm, as I have suggested above. It helps to identify these reactions so you can work on them now to avoid their intrusion when you are trying to be there for your child.
#1 I can't stand to see my child in pain.
No parent likes to see their child in pain and when others hurt her, we want to defend. This problem is worsened if you have leftover hurts from your own childhood that get mixed up in your reaction to your child's current problem. Even if the current situation has some similar circumstances, it is not exactly the same and your child is not you. By quickly running to the rescue, you are showing your child that you do not have confidence in her to work through the feelings and solve the problem. By listening empathetically without rescuing, you are helping her gain emotional strength. Nugget of knowledge: Life involves dealing with pain. Help your child learn how to successfully navigate it rather than run from it.
#2 I really don't like what I'm hearing.
...or I'm appalled by my child's behavior and emotions. Sometimes as kids begin talking to us, they reveal some of their less glowing thoughts and emotions. A teen girl who's talking about other kids at school may launch into a rather unkind characterization of a schoolmate and in fact make fun of her. As a parent, we have multiple reactions starting with "Did I create this?" or "Is my child really this heartless?" or "I really don't like her at the moment."
Actually, when our kids behave in ways we feel is unconscionable, we often recoil and have a mixed reaction of fear, guilt and anxiety. Very uncomfortable to say the least. If you're listening in this case, draw your child out with questions. Using the example I just gave, you might ask "What do you dislike so much about this girl?" "Who else dislikes her?" You're trying to find out if something has happened previously to warrant such strong feelings even if they aren't expressed appropriately. If not, you'll find out who your child is aligning herself with in school and why. Is she making fun of this girl because it gives her entry into a particular group? Through calm questioning you can find out where the strong feelings are coming from, and then finally comment on them. "You don't like her because she made fun of you last week in front of several other people," or "You want to be in the group and they all make fun of this girl." Once you know what's going on you can decide what you want to say to nudge your child's conscience. You might say something like "Wow, I would hate to be that girl. I bet she feels pretty sad and embarrassed when everyone makes fun of her." This is what I call the "back door method." You successfully prime your child to take in the lesson you want to teach. If you go in the front door scolding and criticizing, you are likely to get only resentment and anger back. The back door allows you to set the stage in such a way that your child will feel empathy and question her own behavior. You have done your job as a parent at this point and done it well. Nugget of knowledge: Children can be mean and unfeeling in spite of the values you have instilled. This doesn't mean you're a bad parent. It just means you have work to do.
#3 Enough drama.
Just get over it and stop whining. This is the "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" approach and although this may have a place later in life or at particular times, it won't do much for your connection with your child or his education as to how to handle intense feelings. He'll just learn to suppress them and they'll come out later more explosively either toward others or toward himself. Nugget of knowledge: You can't help how you feel, only what you do with the feelings. All feelings are acceptable.
To be a good listener, you have to have an open mind and be willing to see your children as they are, not as you wish they would be. If you can start there, you can help them to become the best that they can be. Careful listening is the way in and the way to make change. By the way, this type of listening works with adults too. Next time someone comes to you upset or with a problem, ask them: "Do you want me to help you solve the problem or just listen?" You'll be amazed at how much people appreciate that question, whether they are a child or a grown-up.