How to Listen to Kids

Mom in a blue shirt listening to her child
  • Listening is a crucial aspect of effective communication with children.
  • To listen effectively, parents should create a safe and supportive environment, pay attention to nonverbal cues, and respond empathetically.
  • By actively listening to their children, parents can build stronger relationships and help their children feel heard and understood.

Listening and feeling. Two things each adult can do. However, listening and naming feelings is a rare skill indeed. Understanding how to listen is the essence of close relationships. Listening however does not take the form of , “I hear you” or “I know what you mean…but….”

Close but far away

Also called ‘being alone together’, one of the worst feelings an adult can have occurs when their child feels unreachable, despite being beside them. This feeling can leave parents paralysed, and powerless and also afraid for their child.

It is through authentic listening and levelling that these situations can be minimised and avoided.

Social media tools make us fearful

As children get older and gain autonomy, they are usually given mobile devices and with these devices comes access to a world that can be fraught with hidden dangers. Parents fear that their children might view content that is inappropriate, meet strangers, be subject to online bullying, be scammed or otherwise face troubles and difficulties that parents can neither see nor easily understand.

In this context we need to know that our children will feel safe enough to share, make disclosures and talk to us. But children often like to separate parents from their private lives.

So, how do we listen so that kids will feel safe enough to talk?

The essence of listening

The essence of listening is knowing feelings and understanding emotion. It sounds both easy and obvious. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Most people I have met are unable to actually name feelings. This inability needs to be distinguished from managing emotion. Most adults can manage their emotions. This does not mean they can name feelings. I can manage a business without knowing all my staff. This distinction is crucial.

I contend that to manage feelings we need to know feelings. Knowing feelings does not mean labelling banner emotions like “sad, happy, scared.” It means being able to identify and name feelings like ambivalence, restless, empty, and hopeful. It means distinguishing between nervousness and anxiety. It also means doing so without judgement.

Words that are not emotions

It is common for people to say, “I feel emotional.” Emotional is not a feeling. A person may feel overwhelmed, lost, hollow, unrecognised, devalued and so on. Naming emotions is the first step to linking the experiences people have. When listening so that kids will talk, naming emotions or identifying feelings is the first step.

“I wasn’t freaked…I was pi##ed”

Listening also requires insight into the language used by children including adolescents. I recently heard a teenager say to her boyfriend, “I wasn’t freaked…. I was more pissed…” Interpreting this in the context of the language of emotions means contending with a child who was not feeling alarmed but was feeling angry. “Angry” is a banner emotion. The actual feeling was undermined—but this was only revealed through the context given in the situation as it unfolded. Nevertheless, the adolescent was expressing her feelings—despite using a language not widely used by adults. Listen is lost if we judge how feelings are articulated.

Can we know how others feel?

Emphatically YES! A common misconception is that we cannot know how others feel. I disagree. I contend that the only common language all people share is the language of feelings and furthermore that most people feel similarly in most situations. Consider this: regardless of culture ,when a loved one dies people feel grief and experience loss. This can make them initially feel shocked. Shock may take the form of disbelief. Similarly, regardless of culture ,people who achieve their goals will feel satisfied, relieved, and have a sense of affirmation. And regardless of culture people generally fear conflict, prefer certainty over uncertainty and admire tenacity, courage, and honesty.

That feelings are universal means we premise our communication on commonality, not difference. On shared humanity, not surface distinction that might distract and obfuscate.

Do not say either, “How do you feel?”, or “I know how you feel”

When practicing listening, it is useful to start by naming feelings. This is not as easy as it sounds. Actually, being able to attach names or labels to feelings can be very hard, especially if at the time we are feeling vulnerable, protective, uncertain or pressured. One thing that can create distance occurs when adults ask kids how they feel. Whilst there can be a place for this question, sometimes it treats the child as a stranger. An unknown entity. It requires the child to make themselves known. Most people would prefer not to be anonymous.

A further barrier to communication occurs when adults assert that they know how the child feels. The issue with the second sentence is it becomes about the adult not the child. This can close any communication prior to it even commencing. If you know how a person feels then tell them what they are feeling. Saying, “I know how you feel because I went through the same”, shifts the locus back to the speaker.

After I level feelings what next…?

Pause. The biggest next issue is adults rushing to manage. Listening is a process not a product. It is a journey not a terminal. Accordingly, follow the process. Building understanding requires much ‘intrastructure’ and the rush to resolution can subvert the process.

In summary

Understanding feelings needs to be coupled with understanding how to manage them and knowing when to ask for additional support. Identifying feelings and naming them is a large first step. Refusing to engage in practices that cauterise emotional safety will amplify relationships and build closeness when the inner world of kids is in turmoil, and they wish they could be heard.

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