A nurturing relationship involves open, honest communication, and that kind of communication involves listening as well as talking. We need to listen to our children. When we listen, really listen, we show our children that we respect them and that we care about their thoughts and feelings. By carefully listening, we “tell” them that they are worthwhile and have something to contribute. This affirmation helps them develop self-respect.
We particularly need to listen to our children when they are trying to communicate a problem. How can we respond helpfully if we don’t listen first? Effective listening means paying attention to what our kids say as well as to what they do. Children may not always have the words for or understanding of complex emotions to speak directly with words, so they communicate through their behavior. If a child had a frustrating day at school, he or she may slam the car door, throw a book bag, or torment a sibling rather than communicate with words. Parents can help children figure out how to put words to the feelings that underlie the behavior. This is the beginning of learning how to solve problems.
Let’s say Tommy gets in the car after school. His facial expression communicates that he is having a less-than-perfect day. He slams the door, pushes his book bag on the floor, folds his arms across his chest, and says not one word. As a parent, you can make an observation. “It looks like something in your day didn’t go as planned” or “It looks like you’re feeling frustrated.” Tommy might say, “Yeah! My teacher made me sit in the safe chair and took away my recess!” Rather than immediately asking for facts and details, it is important to first let your child know that you understand and accept his feelings about it, even if you ultimately disagree with the way your child behaved at school. So, stay with the feelings first. Resist strongly the temptation at this point to ask for facts or what Tommy did to wind up in the safe chair. The facts will come out as Tommy’s feelings are expressed. What a parent might say now is “I’ll bet that was really upsetting. Maybe even made you feel really mad.” Tommy may respond with, “She blames me for everything!” A parent could then say, “I can imagine that feels very frustrating.” Then Tommy will likely continue with his feelings, and the facts. You may find out that Tommy not only feels frustrated and mad but sad and embarrassed as well. You may find out that the situation was a simple misunderstanding, or you may see that you can help Tommy problem solve.
Most important, this kind of communication develops a strong bond with your child. It helps children learn and recognize complex feelings like frustration, irritation, embarrassment, and sadness. And it helps to connect these feelings with why they occurred.
More to consider: Listening diffuses strong feelings . . .
Before a child, or adult for that matter, can think about a problem and try to solve that problem, he or she must be able to deal with any strong, associated feelings. When anyone is upset, questions and lectures usually just feed the strong feelings inhibiting the ability to articulate the problem, and problems cannot be solved if not identified.