The power of listening
When your child talks to you, do you take the time to stop and listen, or are you too busy doing other things to really hear what they're trying to communicate to you? Liz Donnelly explains how to listen with your heart as well as your ears.
There's an easy way to make your child feel cherished. Listen to them. Listening helps a child build self-esteem, a sense of belonging, and is part of their journey towards finding a place in the world. This process starts earlier than you might imagine. Every child needs to know they matter, and that the people closest to them believe in their two cents' worth. An adult listening sends the child a clear message of love and acceptance.
The International Listening Association defines listening as "the process of receiving, constructing meaning from, and responding to, messages." Listening is a two-way street and takes place on many levels. Stop what you're doing, position yourself at the child's height, look them in the eye, and really absorb what they're saying. We sometimes tend to forget that listening is an active process that we control. It's in our facial expression, posture, and the words we choose to respond with. A good listener doesn't need great hearing. While "hearing" is the receiving of sounds, "listening" is putting meaning on those sounds. A good listener sits still, makes eye contact, gives their full attention, responds by nodding, respects silences, keeps an open mind and doesn't track the time.
Listen with your ears. This tells the child, "I hear you." Next, listen with your eyes ("I see you"), and thirdly, use your mind ("I understand you"). Add these together and it means you're listening with your heart. This sends a powerful message to the child: "I am with you." Real communication based on these principles is the speediest way to create successful relationships.
In comparison, if we interrupt, multitask during a conversation, constantly shift positions, change the subject, think of a response before the sentence has finished, take offence, tell the child what to do instead of asking questions, or try to fix the problem, it sends clear signals to a child that we're not listening. Registered Psychologist Aurelia Escoto-Kemp advises, "Sometimes it's best to keep quiet. Allow space for silence. When your child tells you about an unpleasant incident, it is a natural reaction to want to jump in and offer solutions and opinions. If your child is upset, however, they may just want their feelings acknowledged and validated rather than face a barrage of 'You should have...' or 'Maybe if you had...'. the best response then would be to acknowledge and validate their feelings with a statement such as, 'You are upset about what happened. I would be, too' followed by silence. The silence provides a platform for your child to independently work through the issues and to problem-solve and make decisions. Your child is then more likely to feel as though they have been listened to and heard."
Active listening involves paraphrasing and repeating back what has been said. This clarifies you've heard and understood correctly. It takes practice to get right but pays dividends, because the conversation then becomes more meaningful for both parties.
Aurelia Escoto-Kemp also says, "Children who are confident, articulate, and converse easily and openly are usually those who hold regular and meaningful conversations with their parents or other significant adults in their lives (such as grandparents). They are able to express their opinions and feelings about a particular topic and then listen and consider the opinions and feelings of their conversation partner (even when these are different to theirs)." Some children are natural auditory learners; they take in information best through their ears. Others find it more challenging. But all need help developing their listening skills. The ability to listen is an essential life skill and the bumpy ride will be a little smoother as they grow. The ability to listen will help them make friends easily and absorb information faster.
Listening is a valuable craft to be learned and taught. There are many steps you can take as a parent to reinforce the development of good listening skills in your child. Setting a good example is an obvious starting point. I found this step a challenge. Once I became aware of the mechanics of active listening I realised I was guilty of switching off during conversations. My canny son helped rectify this - he was able to spot my wandering mind a mile off! The key is to be fully present in the moment alongside your child. Clear your mind of the clutter and focus on the little one trying to talk to you. This means temporarily forgetting the "to do" list or the tantrum they had five minutes ago.
Having an unhurried conversation helps a child's listening skills. It only takes a few minutes for an adult to boost a child's self esteem or get a worry off their chest. During these conversations, remove common distractions such as TV. Use open-ended phrases such as "tell me about…" or "tell me more" and let the child steer the conversation. It helps to sit upright and face each other. A weekly family conference around the table can be of great benefit because every member of the household can walk away feeling heard.
Talking with your child is not only fun, it really does matter. Talk about life - your philosophy, extended family, household routines, anything. I've found that the morning dropoff became a treat rather than a stress when I implemented a "no radio" rule. It became a great chance to have an extra ten quality minutes with my son. He leads the conversation, is happy to open up and tells me about most things in this relaxed environment. It's not all about 'deep and meaningfuls', sometimes we play a listening version of "I spy" - "I hear with my little ears" - and he regularly stumps me. By the time we get to school we both feel rewarded for our efforts and more centred.
When your child tries to communicate, you can build deep trust by accepting their feelings, offering encouragement and importantly, allowing mistakes. Adapt your approach for different situations. Remind yourself of where the child is at. Are you there with them or are you expecting an adult conversation? Young children don't respond well to pressure and if they are worried about getting it wrong they tend to freeze. Be sensitive to the child's rate of responding too. Young children need more time to make sense of spoken words than adults do and being impatient can be damaging. The best learning happens through play. Go on a listening walk and find sounds all around you. Play a beginner's level hide-and-seek game (clap or make noise to reveal where you're hiding). When your children are older, teach them how to play Simon Says.
Share stories, fears, tears, and smiles with your child. Tell them you're proud of them and the fact they are working hard to make sense of the world. Understand their point of view, even if you disagree with it. Through this process the child can feel confident in themselves and their thoughts. One day they'll be making decisions that affect their lives without our help. So help them on their journey by listening with all your heart.
Liz Donnelly is a Children's Media Specialist and the founder of the eardrops Company (www.eardrops.co.nz). She is Mum to Tom and Kaya. Aurelia Escoto-Kemp is a registered Psychologist who practices within the area of educational and developmental Psychology.