What Do Your Children Have To Say?

What do your children’s words say to you? Are you taking the time to truly listen? Poor listening skills may be damaging your relationships with your children as well as affecting their personal growth.

Active Listening

Understand I am not talking about hearing your children; I am talking about actively listening to them. Active listening means responding in a way that encourages further communication and interaction. Ann Sell, a licensed mental health counselor who works with families, says, “Active listening is a technique whereby the adult responds by summarizing what the child has just said. This type of listening keeps the child talking and eventually gets to the heart of the problem and the true feelings behind the problem.”

Think about the conversations you have enjoyed with other adults. It is likely the other person listened intently to you and encouraged you to speak more freely. An active listener makes you feel important. Active listening also decreases the chances of being misunderstood because the listener focuses on your words and asks questions to clarify any areas of confusion.

Listening to young children is much harder than listening to adults. They are not always able to clearly explain their thoughts, and they are easily aggravated when you don’t understand them. Those circumstances require patience and exceptional listening skills. In the book How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, authors Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish write there is a direct connection between how children feel and how they behave. Dr. David G. Kelley, a licensed family therapist, says it is important “to help the children get their feelings out so that they will not act them out.”

Improving Relationships With Your Children

Improving your relationships is the underlying benefit of any conversation with your children. However, failure to actively listen can damage your relationships rather than improve them. Kelley says, “Children feel valuable when adults pay attention to them.” Sell agrees. She says, “It gives children pride in themselves to know that they are able to communicate and make themselves understood. It also helps them to feel they are important to that adult and that they have something to say that is interesting to the adult.

An important part of your relationships depends upon how comfortable your children feel expressing their ideas and emotions. Parents make two mistakes. First, they dismiss their children’s words and tell them how to think (i.e. “You don’t really feel that way”). Second, their responses discourage further interaction and communication.

Sell says, “The biggest problem I see with adult/child communication is that the adult thinks they have to answer all the questions and make everything okay for the child. The child really isn’t looking for answers; he or she is looking for a sympathetic and empathetic ear.”

Sell gives the following examples of successful and unsuccessful communication:

Successful Communication
Jake: Dad, everyone hates me.
Dad: Jake, it sounds to me like you are really unhappy.
Jake: Yeah, Dad. The bus was late today, and I forgot my lunch.
Dad: What a way to start the day.
Jake: Yeah. Then when you forget your lunch, you have to go through the lunch line, and then the guys already had a table and there wasn’t enough room
for me, and they told me to go away.
Dad: Man, that is really tough. What can I do to help you tomorrow?
Jake: Well, can you help me remember my lunch?
Dad: Sure, what else?
Jake: Also, will you take me to school if the bus is late? It’s really embarrassing
to get to school late.
Dad: I’ll try. If not, maybe we can work something out.

Unsuccessful Communication
Jake: Dad, everyone hates me.
Dad: Come on, you’re being ridiculous. Everyone doesn’t hate you.
Jake: Yes, they do.
Dad: I don’t want to hear you talk like that.

What can Jake say in the second example? Sell says, “(Jake) goes away just as unhappy as when he came to Dad.”

When you dismiss your children’s words or tell them how to think, you are telling them you don’t accept their feelings. This confuses and angers children and leads them to question whether they can trust their own feelings.

Furthermore, if you do not encourage interaction with your children, you stifle their desire to speak freely. As a result, you lose out on the intimacy of sharing. Sell says, “Good listening skills will lead to a good relationship. Spending time with the child in active communication is probably the only way a relationship will grow. Good communication produces mutual respect.”

Sell says, “Children are very sensitive to the way adults listen and when adults fail to be sensitive to children when they talk, the child will eventually give up and not talk to that adult. Listening to children shows that we care enough to take the time for that child.”

Listening Techniques

Most of us want strong communication and open relationships with our children. However, we never learned effective listening skills, and they do not come naturally. Becoming an effective listener takes hard work and practice. Here are some techniques to help you actively listen to your children:

1. Maintain good eye contact.
2. Listen with full attention.
3. Ask questions.
4. React using head and face gestures.
5. Acknowledge with words like “Oh”, “Mmm”, or “I see”.
6. Summarize the important points periodically.
7. Maintain attentive and respectful body language.

If your child is attempting to solve a problem, you can use the following techniques as well:

1. Give the feeling a name (i.e. anger, embarrassment, etc.).
2. Play games or give the child his wish in a fantasy.
3. Share a similar experience and how you handled it.
4. Help explore different options.
5. Offer your assistance, but avoid “fixing” the problem.
6. Follow up to see what worked.

When communicating with children, most adults want to talk instead of listen. As a result, they wind up judging or lecturing or trying to “fix the problem” for the child. These reactions damage the relationship and decrease the children’s self-worth.

If nothing else, adults should remember Mark Twain’s words: “If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two mouths and one ear.”

     Posted on July 1, 2009 at 12:50 pm | No comment

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