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How To Listen To Your Kids

Aug 17, 2007
There is no doubt that as parents, we all want our kids to feel that they can approach us and talk about anything.

Learning how to listen and respond to our kids is a skill and determines whether our kids will continue to want to talk to us, or avoid it.

Naturally, when our kids approach us with a problem (asking us for help), we wish to help them feel better straight away and fix the problem. Sometimes we use the wrong listening techniques, which can do the opposite to what we intend.

Here is a quick list of how NOT to respond to your kids:

1) Reprimanding - Try not to take the opportunity to lecture your kids when they approach you about a problem.
For example:
"How was your day?"
"Bad".
"You think your day was bad!"
"Well, I am finding my English really hard... my stupid teacher keeps yelling at me..."
"Now you cut out talking about your teacher in that way, you should have more respect for your superiors young lady! If you weren't mucking around she wouldn't have to yell at you!"
"Mmmm"
(End of conversation)

2) Condescending - Taking pity too far and going over the top to fix the problem can leave your child feeling silly.
For example:
"How was your day?"
"Bad".
"Oh, you poor thing, come here and tell me all about it".
"Well, I am finding my English really hard..."
"Well, that's terrible, I will write a note to your English teacher tomorrow and ask her to slow down and help you more, after dinner we will go over what you didn't understand".
"Oh...well..."
"We don't want to having a hard time at school, because it is important you enjoy learning and having fun. Now let me see a big smile".
"Mmmm"
(End of conversation)

3) Diverting - Trying to distract your child from focusing on a problem will result in them feeling helpless.
For example:
"How was your day?"
"Bad".
"That's no good, want to come outside for a play?"
"Well, I am finding my English really hard..."
"I know, I was never any good at English either. Cheer up buddy, like an ice cream?"
"Mmmm"
(End of conversation)

Unfortunately in all three examples above, the parent feels as though they have helped or solved their child's problem (even though they did most of the talking). The child doesn't get to talk the problem through, doesn't get to discuss their feelings and the conversation is short.

Compare the previous responses to the following attitude. I call this type of response enquiry based listening.
"How was your day?"
"Bad".
"You look pretty disappointed, what happened?"
"Well, I am finding my English really hard...my stupid teacher keeps yelling at me."
"Are you feeling as though she is getting upset with you for some reason?"
"Yeah, when I get a question wrong she starts yelling at me and then I have no idea what to do, I get embarrassed".
"I can understand that. Why do you think she yells when you get something wrong?"
"Probably because she has to repeat herself. She said she hates having to say the same thing over and over."
"Do you think she is having to repeat herself?"
"Sometimes I talk when she first explains something, so then she has to say it again".
"Do you think this is why she is getting frustrated with you?"
"Yeah, she probably wouldn't yell at me if I listened more to her".
"You can understand it from her point of view?"
"Mmm, I suppose that is why she gets annoyed with me. I might understand more then if I listen to her too".
"That's a good thing you just worked out. I reckon you'll have a much better day tomorrow, do you?"
"For sure!"

In cases such as this, parents are interactive with their child, helping them to work out the problem for themselves. The parent simply facilitates the thinking-through process. In most cases, kids are asking us for support and in this way, that is what they receive.

With enquiry based listening, your kids will feel as though you are great to talk with and as though you understand what they are going through. They come out of the conversation feeling as though they have worked out a solution all for themselves.

Although it can be painful to know when your child is having a problem, it is a learning experience that they think the issue through and find a solution. It will help them mature and become more responsible for their own actions.

There are definitely times when a problem or issue requires immediate parental intervention. This is when your child is in a powerless situation, in danger or cannot possibly resolve a problem without your help.

Here are some enquiry based listening techniques I recommend using:

1) When your child does approach you to talk about something, try to give them your full attention. We all know how off putting it is when someone doesn't look at you when you're speaking to them. You immediately feel as though they are not listening and consequently shorten the conversation. By saying things like:
* "...in a minute"; or
* "...can you tell me later?"
only discourages them from opening up to you.

2) Ask open-ended questions, that is questions that are not answered with a simple yes or no response. For example:
* "How did that make you feel?";
* "What was the best thing that happened at school today?"

3) Repeat what you think your child is trying to say. They will either go into more detail to clarify the situation for you or dig deeper to help themselves understand what has happened.

4) Relate to your child's feelings and emotions, for example:
* "I can understand that this would have made you feel unhappy";
* "You are being really grown up telling me about that".

5) Reinforce that you are really listening by giving your eye contact and nodding your head. Responses that show you are listening and encourage further conversation may be:
* "Do you mean that...";
* "Sounds like you're saying...";
* "What do you mean when you say...";
* "Did you feel like...".

Enquiry based listening is a very powerful technique, one that will help your child feel connected with you and one that will also help them to grow.

It is natural to want to immediately fix our kids problems. If they do want to you do something, they will generally ask you.

Try to guide and facilitate them in learning to become independent problem solvers for themselves.
About the Author
Joss Daly is a mum and primary school teacher. She likes to share helpful techniques for connecting with kids. For other great tips, advice and information, visit her website http://www.KidsTalk.smmsite.com.
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