How to REALLY Listen to Your Children
By Laura Reinke
Parenting is tough. And no matter how many books you read, or parenting workshops you attend, you’re going to make mistakes. We are imperfect parents in an imperfect world. That said, we often overcompensate in our parenting. We try to give our kids every material provision we imagine they need. We attend every sporting event, recital, and school program. We send them to the best schools, provide them with every opportunity we didn’t have as children, and then wonder WHY they are so unhappy. Or anxious. Or lonely. As parents, we end up confused, frustrated, and even angry that our children are struggling when we feel as though we have done everything possible to meet their every need!
What we fail to realize is that more than any material possession or opportunity, children need to feel listened to. REALLY listened to—the kind of listening that provides a safe, nonjudgmental environment for our children to open their hearts and experience true empathy and compassion. This kind of listening requires a time-out from our hectic, over-scheduled lives and a complete immersion in what our children are trying to tell us. It takes preparation and practice.
When you plan a vacation, you research where you are going, set a budget, map your activities, plan meals, and pack according to weather conditions. Think of the days and even weeks of planning that go into a week-long vacation. Listening is something that we do every day, and is a critical element of our parent-child relationships, yet we are so often underprepared for this important relationship-building activity.
In order to listen more effectively to our children, we need to better prepare ourselves by remembering these key components:
1. Clear away distractions. It’s hard to understand how our children really feel or what they are trying to tell us if we are responding to e-mails or scanning Facebook or searching for the best deal on Amazon while they are talking with us. Turn off your devices and put them away. Text messages and e-mails will always be there, but your child’s willingness to talk to you will not.
2. Be aware of nonverbal cues. Are you looking at your child, face-to-face? Does your body appear relaxed, open, and ready to listen, or are you standing at the stove with your arms crossed, hoping that it won’t take too long so dinner doesn’t burn? Are you in close proximity to each other and in a space conducive to conversation (not in the crowded hallway outside of the school gym)?
3. Be aware of your current mood, and be honest. If you’re tired, tell your child that. If you had a rough day, let them know that you don’t mean to sound snappy, but you’re upset about something else. You can model how to safely express feelings. If you’re having one of those days, remind yourself that in this moment, there’s nothing you can do to change what happened earlier, but you can control your ability to be “present” here and now for your child.
4. Listen with the intent to LEARN. Let go of your needs to self-disclose, lecture, or overreact. Listen to what your child is telling you. Ask open-ended questions: “Do you know why he treated you that way?” Paraphrase to make sure you understand: “It sounds like you were angry about that…” Ask questions to clarify: “So I’m a little confused. Do you not want to go to prom anymore?” Using these types of questions can help you listen with the intent to understand what your child is really trying to tell you.
If we want to know what is really going on in our children’s lives, we can learn more from a 10-minute, device-free, face-to-face conversation, where we are actively asking questions with the intent to understand, than we can from following them on Instagram or snooping through their text messages. Psalm 127:3 reminds us that Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him. Prepare yourself as a Christian parent to make time to really listen to your children so you can honor them and their lives as the true gifts and blessings that they are.
If you need tools to communicate better with your children, our professional counselors can help with practical strategies. Call 800.438.1772 or click here to request an appointment with one of our Christian counselors.