It’s that time of year again, when summer winds down and a new school year begins. It’s a change of season and time of transition, which naturally brings with it feelings of anticipation and nostalgia, perhaps a bit of excitement, some curiosity and maybe a bit of uncertainty and worry. These feelings can be heightened if this also happens to be a transition year, like starting kindergarten, middle school, high school, or a new school. For most kids, these feelings will soon fade as they get into the rhythm of their new routines. Your job as parent during this time of transition is to offer a presence from which your child can draw strength and confidence.
In Healthy Responses to Anxiety–Part I, I talked about being aware of and managing your own stress and worry (this is a transition for you too, after all!), and to respond to your child empathically. I choose the word “respond” intentionally, because we do our best parenting when we respond with intention and not react emotionally.
Healthy, Supportive Communication
One of the most helpful responses a parent can have when a child is expressing fear or worry is to listen while resisting the temptation to dismiss their misgivings or fix it quickly. Listening without reacting is an empathic response.
Consider this: Have you ever shared a worry or concern with someone, who just listened to you while you talked, without dismissing your concern or jumping in to fix it? How did that feel to you? For many concerns, simply expressing it is a relief. You may have even, through the process of hearing yourself talk it through, resolved whatever was troubling you.
Not only is listening a supportive and empathic action, it also affords you a peek into your child’s inner world. Listening allows you an opportunity to gain insight into how your child thinks and what drives his behavior. With your newly found insight, you are in a better position to respond to your child, because you have a better understanding what’s really going on.
Sounds simple: Listen. Then respond.
It’s actually a pretty good mantra, if a bit difficult at times to implement. I’ve been a parent for 10 1/2 years, and a psychologist for nearly as long. I am an expert listener, but when I’m tired, hungry, or generally stressed, and my own children have managed to push every one of my emotional buttons (a gift all children seem to be born with), I too have been known to react emotionally rather than respond empathically. Those are not proud moments. But they do give me pause.
If it can at times be difficult for me–an adult with training and expertise in keeping my cool and being a good listener–to hold my emotions, then what’s reasonable to expect of my children? Certainly kids need to learn to cope with adversity and manage strong emotions, but sometimes I forget just how difficult that task can actually be. I get frustrated and impatient and react accordingly.
I know I’m not alone in this experience of making a parenting mistake because I reacted emotionally, and not responded empathically. Luckily, listening and responding are skills that can be learned, practiced and improved. Thankfully, mistakes are opportunities to reflect, learn, and grow. Here are some tips for becoming a more empathic listener.
Top 5 Listening Skills
- Relax your muscles, including the ones in your face, jaw, and around your eyes. When your child sees you appearing calm, it helps her to feel calm. Then calmer she feels, the more easily she can express herself. The number one reason I hear from kids and teens about why they don’t talk to their parents is that they don’t want to deal with their parents’ emotional reactions. Kids and teens are often working hard to handle their own emotions–they do not need to deal with their parents’ emotions as well. If you show them that you are able to keep your own emotions in check when they share their thoughts and feelings with you, they will be more likely to continue to share their feelings now an in the future.
- Reflect or paraphrase what you hear your child saying in a neutral tone of voice. Reflecting what a person says accomplishes three things: a) it let’s them know you are truly listening to what they are saying, b) it gives you, the listener, something helpful to say when you feel tempted to jump in and argue or problem-solve, and c) it provides you an opportunity to make sure you really understand what your child is saying before responding with your own thoughts.
- Validate their concerns and help them label their emotions. Most of the topics that our kids bring us are things that many kids feel and experience, and are a normal part of growing up. Letting them know they are not alone in their experience is often quite helpful. If they are expressing something that isn’t correct, you can still validate the emotion they feel. “I can see your really feeling X.”
- Remember that listening does NOT imply agreement. I point this out, because some people fear that if they listen the way I’m describing that their child will believe it means they agree with them. Instead of listening, they begin to dispute what their child is saying, which is rarely–if ever–helpful. Be patient. Communication is a process, and you will have a turn to talk. Listening first informs your response and actually helps your child be calm enough to listen when you do talk.
- Repeat as needed. When in doubt, continue to listen. Unless your child is in some sort of imminent danger that requires immediate action from you, a listen-first strategy will serve you well.
You might be thinking, “OK, I have listened–now how do I respond?” Of course, it’s impossible to script for every possible situation, but here are some tips to guide you:
- Ask questions that will help your child think more deeply about what’s happening. For example, “What do you think will happen?” or “What has you thinking X?” or “What would be the worst thing about Y?” or even, “How will handle Z?” The goal in asking these types of questions is to help your child think critically about the situation and support him in his own problem-solving.
- If your child has a tendency to reject what you say (e.g., “No, that won’t work!” “Yeah, but…”), then start by asking, “Would you like to hear what I think?” or “I have some ideas. Would you like to hear them?” Inevitably, her curiosity will get the better of her and she will say, “sure,” and will be more open to your feedback.
- Resist the temptation to lecture. Make 1-2 points at a time, keeping your message simple. Then allow your child an opportunity to respond while you go back to listening.
- Stick to the facts and use “I” statements as much as possible. Use phrases like, “I wonder…”, “I’m curious what would happen if…”, “I’ve noticed…”
When you use a listen then respond approach, you model and encourage compassion, empathy, reflective and critical thinking, and problem-solving. You send a message to your child that he is capable of handling his worries and solving his problems.