Listening, Part II
Episode #5 of the course Parenting skills to raise responsible, mature children by Roger K. Allen, PhD
Hi, and welcome back to “Parenting Skills to Raise Responsible, Mature Children.” Yesterday, I introduced the skill of listening, and I want to continue this topic today by offering more examples that demonstrate how listening validates our kids’ feelings and thereby helps them know how to manage their emotions in more mature ways.
Here’s an example. Eight-year-old Billy has spent 45 minutes building a tower out of tinker toys. He brings his mom into his room to show it off, and his four-year-old brother, Henri, dashes up, grabs a piece, and the whole thing comes tumbling down. Billy lets out a blood-curdling screech and shoves his brother to the floor.
Mom shuffles a crying Henri out of Billy’s room and closes the door. Ignoring Henri, she turns to Billy and mirrors his frustration. “How disappointing that you worked so hard for so long on this beautiful tower, and your brother ruined it.”
Billy wails louder. “I spent all afternoon making this. I’ll never be able to make another one like it.”
Mom: “It is so frustrating when you work so hard and feel so proud of something, and it is destroyed in an instant.”
Billy: “Yeah. I wanted to show Dad and now I can’t.”
Mom: “What a disappointment.”
Billy: “And that little brat always comes into my room and messes up my things. He’s always doing that.”
Mom: “You’re really mad at him right now.”
Billy: “Yeah. He’s so mean.”
Mom’s listening is more than words. Her entire demeanor, gestures, and tone communicate empathy. As she listens in this way, Billy feels heard and validated. His angry feelings run their course and he begins to calm down. After a few moments of silence, Mom asks, “So, what do you want to do now?”
Billy tells Mom he’s tired of the tinker toys and is going to go see if their friend, Jeff, is home.
How easy it would have been for Billy’s mother to overreact emotionally by either yelling at him, “Listen to me. This is no big deal. You’re making a mountain out of a molehill. You’ve built a hundred towers. Stop crying RIGHT NOW!” (over-managing), or soothing him by making promises, “It’s okay. We can make another tower. Your dad and I talked about buying you some more tinker toys anyway. Maybe you and I can go to the store later this week!” (overindulging).
Instead, she supported Billy by mirroring his emotions, trusting the value of letting him express himself, and allowing him to learn to manage his emotions.
Listening is not only used to discuss big problems but also as a skill we can use during brief conversations. Here are a few examples.
Mary: “Johnny is so mean.”
Parent: “Sounds like you’re upset with him.”
Mary: “I am. He called my friend names.”
Parent: “That didn’t seem nice.”
Mary: “I’m going to tell his friends that he’s a big jerk.”
Parent: “You’re so mad you’d like to get even.”
Parent: “You’d like to hurt him in the same way he hurt you.”
Much of the time, it’s simply enough to show empathy rather than try to fix our kids or tell them what to do. A good listening response validates our children’s feelings, but without taking on too much responsibility. Sure, there are times we need to intervene. But we tend to do so too often.
Here’s another example.
Child: “I’m bored.”
Parent: “You’re just not sure what to do right now.”
Child: “No. There’s nothing fun to do around here if I can’t get on the computer.”
Parent: “Yeah, that’s got to be a real bummer.”
Notice, again, how easy it would be to slip into giving advice. Instead, this parent validated the child’s feelings and also left responsibility where it belongs.
The purpose of this lesson has been to help you understand the power of listening when your children are upset. Now I invite you to apply what you have learned. Look for an opportunity to listen to a child who is upset. Move toward the child, and rather than react or try to fix them, mirror and validate their feelings. You’ll see how this approach usually helps them calm down and brings you closer together.
Of course, we sometimes go from listening to other skills, which we’ll talk about in upcoming lessons.
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