Children are really aware of adult communication. From the time that they are very young, they can tell when adults are preoccupied, distracted or not listening.
Children tune out when they don't like the tone, lecturing, or lack of listening in a conversation. If they think that their part of the conversation is being ignored or rejected, they become angry or lose interest.
Do you know how you come across to your child? What is it like to talk to you? Are you encouraging or discouraging? Are you patient or impatient? Does the expression on your face show interest and respect, or indifference and a lack of interest? Most of us have no idea how we really come across to our children. Most people listen with the intention of replying. If your manner of listening is simply planning what you are going to say next, it is not effective listening.
We generally listen at one of four different levels:
- Not listening. We ignore what is being said and don't even make an effort to understand.
- Pretending to listen. We may nod from time to time and even tune in when something interests us, but generally we hear very little. We are distracted, sleepy, anxious or bored, and our mind is wandering.
- Selective listening. We pay attention to only those things that we agree with or that support our positions and beliefs. People tend to hear what they expect to hear, need to hear, or want to hear, and block out the rest.
- Attentive listening. We focus on the words and compare it to our own experiences, but pay little attention to the meaning.
Effective listening requires listening on an entirely different level. It is listening with empathy, listening for meaning. It involves trying to understand what the child is saying from his or her perspective rather than filtering it through your own experiences. It is related to the concept of "seeing through the eyes of a child." To be an effective listener requires personal integrity, skill and commitment. The listener must stop trying to evaluate, judge, or plan a reply while the child is speaking. Positive communication requires that you listen empathetically and then indicate that you hear what the child is saying. Your empathy can be demonstrated to your child by focus (eye contact), body language, and reflective listening.
- Focus (eye contact) - Focus means that you are looking directly at your child as he or she is speaking and not looking off to one side or continuing to do something else. Face the child squarely with your body. Stop what you are doing. You are focused on what is being said; your child is the center of attention.
- Listening without interrupting - Does your body language acknowledge that you are listening? Use smiles, nods, and expressions of understanding to communicate to your child that you are listening. It is not necessary that you agree or disagree at this time. It is more important that your child knows that his or her words are respected.
- Reflective listening - Reflective listening involves hearing the feelings and meanings of your child. It is a re-statement (in different words) of what the child has said. You, in essence, mirror the words of your child and rephrase them back, checking for accuracy of understanding. This process affirms the child, indicates a respect of the child, and shows that you understand the child's message.
You must consciously choose to listen and to be emotionally present. There are too many distractions, too many problems to be solved, too many worries, too many issues that are much more important and compelling than anything that a child is likely to say.
You must consciously lay those matters aside and take charge of where your mind is focused.
Listen to your child the way that you would like to be listened to: with honesty, integrity, respect, and fairness.
When your child "doesn't listen":
- My child simply refuses to listen. The more I get upset, the worse he gets.
- He refuses to follow basic rules of behavior, ignores me, and screams when he doesn't get his way.
- I get so angry that I find myself yelling and can't seem to stop.
- Why? Why doesn't he listen?
Nobody likes to talk to someone who isn't listening. That goes for both children and adults. So the first step in getting your child to listen to you and take you seriously is to learn to be a better listener yourself. By doing that, you are also teaching your child to listen.
Children need to be taught how to listen
Listening is a behavior that is not taught to children by talking about it. Rather, listening is observed and experienced. Many of us never really learned how to listen and so it is difficult to show children the proper way.
If your child has learned through experience that it is alright not to listen and to ignore your requests, then this pattern will happen again and again.
Your child is more likely to listen if, when you are talking, you focus on your child directly and authoritatively. You might literally have to get down to your child's level on the floor. Your body language must indicate that you are right there and engaged. Talking to your child in this way is so much more effective than calling out from the next room. The child is much more likely to listen to what you have to say.
Sometimes despite the internal awareness of loving our children, we communicate in ways that do not display that love.
There are times when all parents feel very angry with their children. When parents become angry, they often ascribe motives to children that do not exist, when in fact, children never have the deliberate intention of making their parents angry.
If you find yourself feeling angry much of the time it is usually because you are feeling stressed about something that is going wrong in your life. It is not primarily caused by your child's behavior, nor is it because you are a bad parent or because there is something wrong with you. Anger in a mother can come from being depressed, feeling guilty, feeling disappointed, feeling frustrated, not feeling valued and useful, or just plain tiredness.
Anger can lead to yelling, a learned behavior from the parent's own experience of being yelled at as a child. As much as they regret it later, there are times during frustration or anger than parents lose control and resort to doing just that.
However, yelling frightens children. Being yelled at makes children want to fight back, or run away. They feel helpless.
If your child is not behaving in a loving manner, this only means that your child is fearful and not feeling safe. Once you recognize that your child's "misbehavior," or "attacking you" is really a call for help, then instead of responding by yelling, you can train yourself to respond calmly, no longer perpetuating the negative pattern of communication which can never lead to a peaceful outcome.
- Try to understand the underlying feeling that is causing your anger and then do something about the cause.
- It can be very damaging for children to be in a home where there is lots of anger, even if the anger is not directed at them.
- If you sometimes feel very angry, take a break yourself until you can manage your feelings.
There are ways to show you that you are angry without being hurtful to your child. If you cannot do this, seek help in learning how to control your temper.
Hold Your Applause
Parents understandably praise their children for doing well. They want their children to feel good about themselves. The problem with praise is that it can be overdone. While there is nothing wrong with helping children to feel a sense of pride, that feeling of satisfaction should be the result of genuine achievement.
If children are constantly praised for minimal effort or mediocre results, the words of praise become the ultimate goal, rather than the desire to learn and improve. It is a subtle difference with a major consequence. Instead of being absorbed in the intrinsic pleasure of the activity, the child is apt to focus more on pleasing the parent.
When a child’s confidence is not built on actual abilities, it can be devastating when that child gets into the "real world" such as school, and finds that the teacher has expectations of real performance.
This does not mean that you should discourage your child. Emphasize effort and specific characteristics of what your child has done, whether it is a crayon drawing or behavior at the dinner table.
Building up your child's self-esteem does not call for constant praise and compliments. Undeserved praise is not authentic communication. Responding to your child’s efforts thoughtfully and honestly is the basis for building self-esteem, and creating confidence in meeting life's challenges.
Another way to show encouragement is simply to be with your child, to see and appreciate by your presence alone. Just being in the same room communicates that you are interested and available, which is sometimes all that your child needs.
The Communication Pay-off
Being a skillful communicator requires patience, understanding, time and space. Learning how to listen well and respect other people's autonomy and feelings, and showing your child how to do so, will lay the foundation for emotionally healthy relationships throughout life.