How Listen so Kids will Talk

Talking to your kids and knowing that they listen is something parents are always hoping to do. The feeling that parents can communicate with their children about important issues like avoiding drugs makes them feel that things are working well.

Research supports the idea that children benefit when parents are able to converse with them. A supportive communication style between parents and children improves children’s school performance, reduces the risk of their using drugs, or engaging in other rebellious behavior and is probably the most important factor contributing to children growing up and being able to live responsibly as adults.

What makes a positive parent/child relationship so helpful to children is not so much what parents say, however, but how well parents listen to what their children say. In other words, it’s not so much parents talking to their children as it is parents listening to their children. It’s easy to turn children off by talking to them and giving advice. Advice comes easy to parents because they have been there and don’t want their children to make the same mistakes. Parents want to impart the wisdom gleaned from their mistakes so that their children will have smooth sailing. The best intentions of steering a child in the right direction, however, can go awry, leaving parents frustrated and resentful and children feeling alienated and rebellious.

The problem with listening is that it is just hard to do and requires attention, concentration, accurate observation of verbal and non-verbal behavior, patience, understanding, and empathy. Not only does talking not require these same qualities, but when a parent relies mainly on talking or giving advice to their children, they may inadvertently block their ability to understand their children’s point of view. When parents are good listeners, they are good at non-verbal communication. If, for example, a parent notices non-verbal cues that their child is bothered by something, but is unable to talk about it, the parent can invite the child to talk. An opening such as, “You seem like something is on your mind. Would you like to talk about it?” would demonstrate to the child that the parent is concerned about them. Even if the child doesn’t want to talk about it, he/she would know that the parent was responsive be more likely to open up later.

Just opening the door without being intrusive can be very helpful to children. For example, brief statements like, “I’d like to hear about what’s going on, if you want to tell me” may be all that is needed to bring a problem out.

We know from research that children like to talk about themselves only to a point and then they close down. The younger the child, the more difficult it is to express feelings or talk about a problem. Young children usually act out behaviorally rather than say how they feel because they don’t have the cognitive skills to put feelings into words. It may be helpful for parents to frame the problem as something outside the child like a third party that they can talk about. In talking about a problem in this way, the problem becomes an “it’ rather than as part of the child. When parents notice that their child is bothered by something either through verbal or nonverbal behavior, they can respond with statements to externalize it like, “It’s really hard when that happens” or “that’s rough.”

The expression “active listening” describes both the difficulty in listening and the process of how to listen because it requires that parents hear accurately what the child is saying and reflect it back in a statement. Generally, the formula “You feel______ because ______” helps because it identifies the feeling and why the child is feeling that way.

Take the following scenario: Ten year-old Josh is refusing to go to school. The parents are stressed in the morning because of their own need to get to work and don’t have time or want this kind of aggravation. Common responses of stressed out impatient parents might be: “I’ve had it with you”, “You know you don’t mean it, you have to go”, or “you’re going whether you like it or not”. Each one of these responses does not further the conversation because the parent doesn’t find out what Josh’s concern is about. The outcome is that Josh would become more reluctant to talk with the parent in an open conversation. Over time this type of parental responses to the child would result in poor communication and defiance.

Active listening requires that the parent learn about why Josh doesn’t want to go to school. Parents need to understand the feelings behind the behavior. For example, Josh could be the victim of a school bully, or he has done something really embarrassing and his friends are kidding him, or his friends are mad at him, or he has a test he hasn’t studied for. Parents have a better chance getting to the real reason by making reflective statements that help Josh make responsible choices.

While being a good listener doesn’t solve all the problems with children, it does set the stage for a long-term positive, supportive relationship. A few ideas to help with listening are:
• Be patient.
• Be attentive to non-verbal behavior. What children don’t say speaks louder than what they do say. Watch their facial expressions, tone of voice, energy level, and posture.
• Eliminate distractions by turning off the TV or radio.
• Have eye-to-eye contact.
• Avoid “yes” or “no” answers.
• It’s important to hear them out and not cut them off.
• Identify feelings. “You seem really frustrated about this.”
• Help clarify by stating your child’s feelings in your own words.
• Be available by spending time with your child. Provide enough time to talk it out.
• Explore possible outcomes without offering the answer.

About Dr. Roberts

Dr. Roberts has worked for the past 25 years in the field of Child and Family Development. He has a PhD in Child and Family Development with an Emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy. He also has an EdS degree in Counseling and the MDiv degree in Theology. He directed the Marriage and Family Therapy program at Appalachian State University, Chaired the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at Long Beach State, and chaired the Department of Child and Family Development at San Diego State University. Dr. Roberts is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of Georgia and had his own practice before starting his long career in higher education. Dr. Roberts also holds the title of Elder in the United Methodist Church.
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