Think of one person who really listened to you. They just got you! Can you pinpoint what that person did that worked so well?
Our children want to feel heard, too. When children feel like they are not heard, it can lead to troubles with behavior or missed connections. Adults often are stumped as to why kids feel and think what they do or simply are unsure what to say to make it better. Listening is an art form: We’re interested, we get a little instruction, watch what others do (or don’t do), try something that feels a little awkward and practice, practice, practice. The goal: understanding our children’s experience so that they (and we) feel connected and supported.
Tips for listening
■ Eye contact: There are cultural differences in using eye contact to let someone know you are listening. What does your culture at home require? School? With friends or adults? Consider what works for your child. Not sure? Try something new.
■ Body language: Nodding, saying “uh-huh,” a smile, frown or look of concern lets someone know you are listening. In one study, young children whose mothers grimaced as if in pain right when the child was getting an injection, and then provided comfort immediately afterward, recovered faster than those children whose mothers did not grimace. These mothers were telling their children, “I get it! It hurts! And I am here for you.” Try turning your body toward your child and using facial expressions to mirror the emotion you think your child is feeling.
■ Words: You don’t have to completely understand your child’s experience to use words to validate them. Reflect what you heard them say: “I heard you say you were scared,” or “That sounds exciting and fun!” I love “I wonder ...” statements. You simply are saying, “I am listening and want to know more about your experience.”
■ No fixing needed: Effective listening does not require you to fix the problem. So often, we want to jump in and offer our advice. First, we need to create a space for it to be received. When feeling understood, children can help brainstorm solutions.
■ Check in with yourself: Pay attention to what you are feeling and thinking. Sometimes it feels uncomfortable, which leads to fix mode or saying, “It’ll be fine!” to make the discomfort go away. Being mindful of these emotions and thoughts is perfectly normal, gives you room to be OK with your own experience and makes room for choices on how you can respond. “Wow, I’m really feeling pressured to solve this problem. I know this is normal. I think my daughter is feeling scared. I’ll try an ‘I wonder’ statement and see how it goes.”
We don’t need practice to make perfection — practice these skills to lead to connection!
Barbara Gueldner, Ph.D, is licensed psychologist in private practice in Steamboat Springs. She is a member of First Impressions, Routt County’s early childhood council. Find her at www.successfulkidstoday.com.