Did you resolve to build a better relationship with your kids this year? Have more deep conversations? Then you'll be interested to know that the most important skill for parents in talking with kids is listening. Not answering, not teaching, not lecturing, not fixing things or offering solutions. Not only do your kids not want that from you, but it would get in the way of them coming up with their own solutions. What your kids need from you is your full attention and empathy. That's what deep listening is. How do you do it?
Be fully present. This is your time to listen to your child. It's a gift to both of you. The shopping list and that problem at the office can wait. Your child knows when you're really listening. She may not show it, but it breaks her heart when you pretend to and don't.
Close your mouth. If you're like me, you may have to put your hand over your mouth. There are teachable moments, but kids learn most from the opportunity to hear themselves talk and come to their own conclusions. If you give in to the temptation to lecture, your child will clam up.
Start with empathy, like a mirror you hold up to your child. Your acknowledgement of what he's feeling helps him to accept his own feelings, which is what allows them to resolve. Most of the time, when kids (and adults) feel their emotions are understood and accepted, the feelings lose their charge and begin to dissipate. We don't have to act on those feelings, or even to like them, merely to acknowledge their presence.
Repressed feelings, on the other hand, don't fade away, as feelings do when they've been acknowledged. Repressed feelings are trapped and looking for a way out. Because they aren't under conscious control, they pop out unmodulated, when a preschooler socks her sister, or a seven-year-old has nightmares, or an eleven-year-old develops a nervous tic.
Remember that listening empathically doesn't mean agreement. Accepting his feelings and reflecting them does not mean you agree with them or endorse them. You're showing him you understand, nothing more, and nothing less. And if you've ever felt understood, you understand just how great a gift this is.
Don't start solving the problem. The point is to let him get past his upset so that he can begin to think about solutions himself, not to solve it for him. When he expresses his feelings about something, you'll want to listen and acknowledge, rather than jumping in with solutions. That means you'll have to manage your own anxiety about the issue.
Resist the impulse to probe. "Tell me how you feel" is not empathy. Empathy is mirroring whatever she's already showing you. "You seem sad this morning" or "You're very quiet tonight," followed by a warm smile will encourage her to open up more than badgering her with questions.
Don't start by trying to change the feeling or cheer her up. I promise you, empathizing with the bad feeling is the fastest way to let it dissipate. Arguing her out of the bad feeling just invalidates her, or pushes it under to resurface later. That doesn't mean you magnify or wallow in the negative feeling, just that you acknowledge it and honor her experience. Once she has a chance to notice, accept, and maybe express the feeling, she'll feel ready for "cheering up" in the sense of a change of scene and topic.
Try to listen from a place of spacious acceptance. Don't take it personally. Breathe. Detach. Above all, if you start feeling responsible ("I could have prevented this!") or terrified ("I can't believe this is happening to my child!") get a grip and put your feelings aside. This isn't about you, right now, and your upset won't help. You can process later.
To open discussion, actively acknowledge and reflect his feelings, without judgment or suggestion. "You sure are angry at your brother" and "You seem worried about the field trip today" are conversation openers, "You just have to make the effort to get along with your brother!" and "Don't be such a baby about the field trip; of course you're going!" are conversation closers.
Match your reaction with his mood. Your third grader's being a bit downcast because his team lost the soccer game doesn't merit a reaction from you as if someone had died. Conversely, mechanically parroting "It can be hard when your boyfriend splits up with you" is likely to evoke hysteric rage from your fourteen-year-old.
Want a challenge? Try doing less talking and more listening for a full month. I guarantee you that in thirty days, you'll see a quantitative change in your relationship with your child. And I'm betting you'll enjoy that month so much you'll find yourself listening more in all of your relationships
Dr. Laura Markham