Communicating With Your Kids Isn’t All Talk – You Also Have to Listen

We all agonize over how to best communicate with our children – about big issues, such as self respect and courage, and little things, like the embarrassing incident of the coke spill on the white shirt at lunchtime. Funny thing, though: For all the worrying we do about finding the right words to say, perhaps the most important thing is what we don’t say.

That’s because, to communicate with your kids, it’s not enough to know what to say. You also have to know how to listen.

“We routinely deny our children’s feelings by not hearing what they’re really trying to tell us,” says Adele Faber, a former teacher and co-author of the classic parenting book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. “When we say things like, ‘It’s just a busted balloon, it’s not the end of the world,’ or ‘That’s nothing to cry about, it’s only a little scratch,’ it’s because we don’t want our children to be unhappy.

But that leaves kids feeling shut down and often ashamed of their feelings.” Parents may want their children to “feel the right feelings,” Faber says, “but feelings aren’t right or wrong – they just are.” What’s more important is how a child deals with what he feels. And parents who learn to listen non-judgmentally will build a strong rapport that will last through those famously uncommunicative teen years.

Read Between the Lines

It’s important to listen beyond your child’s words for the underlying problem. That foot-stomping tempest about the “idiot” younger brother might actually be fallout from a playground argument with a friend earlier in the day. The more you can listen and reflect the child’s feelings of the moment (“Oh, so that’s what bothered you!”), the more likely it is that the real issue will eventually tumble out.

Once you hear about that real issue, don’t be in a hurry to fix things. By acknowledging your child’s emotions, he’s now ready to talk about what’s really on his mind and focus on how to solve problems himself rather than depend on a parent to fix it.

Consider these real-life situations:

I Hate School
Your preschooler pitches a daily fit when it’s time to go to preschool. A daily battle ensues and the child is dragged screaming to the car. You have a headache by the time you’ve driven three blocks.

A typical response: “Listen, it’s only for a half a day and I’ll pick you up a lunchtime. You know you have fun playing with Josh, and you have fun with the blocks. You have to do this.”

A more helpful response: Instead of trying to solve the problem, make sure your child knows you understand how he feels: “I know. School is not your favorite place to be. You like being at home, playing with all your little cars. (Big sympathetic sigh here.) Oh well. Here’s your jacket.” Child, putting on jacket: “I really hate school.” You, opening the door: “I know. You really do hate it!”

The Dinner Fight
There are many variations on this argument, but here’s a rough simulation: Mom has rushed around cobbling together a healthy and sustaining meal that will pass the stringent requirements of the Suspicious Food Patrol. She calls to the kids to wash up for supper, and one, who is generally a hearty eater, says: “I’m not hungry and I hate peas anyway.”

A typical response: “I’ve just spent the past hour cooking for this family and this is what you have to say? Besides, you’ve eaten peas your entire life. You will march over to that table and sit down now.”

A more helpful response: Rather than engaging in conflict, start by acknowledging your child’s feelings: “Hmmmm. You feel so strongly about this that you simply refuse to eat. And you especially don’t like peas!” By having his feelings validated, he can now relax and tell you what’s really on his mind.

You may hear something like, “Well, the peas aren’t that bad. But I have a big test tomorrow and I left my book at school.” Now you can go from there: “Oh, that is a worry. I wonder if there’s any way to get that book tonight.”

Worries About Drinking
Your teenager has been invited to a party at her friend’s house. She tells you there may be drinking and she’s concerned. At the same time, she doesn’t want to be labeled a prude.

A typical response: “If anybody is drinking you should call me and I’ll pick you up – my cell phone number is in your speed dial. But really I don’t know if you should go at all. I think I should call your friend’s parents and have a conversation with them about this immediately. This is very serious.”

A more helpful response: While it’s very tempting to plunge into action mode, try to sit back and hear what she is saying first without shutting her down. Start with something along these lines: “Sounds as if you have mixed feelings about the party. You don’t want to miss out on the fun, but you’re not sure about whether there will be drinking – and if there is, how you’d handle it.” By showing a relaxed and ready-to-listen attitude, kids will be more comfortable coming to you. “They’ll explore their concerns with you because you’re an easy person to explore with. You understand that some issues are complex and that a person can have two feelings at once,” says Faber.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t express your opinion, but wait until she’s had a chance to think through hers. Then is the time to say something like, “The more I think about it, the less I like it. You know I object to underage drinking. Not only is it illegal, but we’ve talked about how alcohol affects your brain. On the other hand, I hear what you are saying – that your good friends will be there and that you can hold a glass of ginger ale and just pretend you’re drinking. Nevertheless, if it’s OK with you, I’ll call the parents and hear what they have to say.

Other Books by Adele Faber