By Emily Roberts MA, LPC
Have you ever been talking to a friend about something important, and you are really spilling your guts, while she appears to be half-heartedly listening? Maybe she is checking her email, responding to a text, or folding the kids laundry; she may really hear you, but her body language tells a different story. Does yours?
With good communication, family bonds grow stronger, your children open up more, family members hear one another, and trust is maintained. Many children I speak to have confessed that they believe that their parents “don’t hear them”. Interestingly enough, parents are telling me the same thing. So what’s the problem? Often times the way we listen that can be the problem. We also teach our children to model our listening behaviors, if you give off the impression that you are somewhat listening, this closes the door for future communication with them. Kids are smart, and they remember when they have been shut down, even if it just feels that way.
As a therapist, I have been trained to learn to listen. There are techniques that I was taught to make sure that I convey a listening ear, they have worked wonders across the couch and even within my outside relationships. Here are a few tips to show your kids (and others in your life) that you are actually hearing what they say.
Eye Contact & Body Language
Do: Look at them when they are talking to you. Make sure it is natural, not in a creepy bug-eyed, like you are trying too hard kind of way. Naturally looking at them, getting on their level physically and seeing their face conveys that you are hearing them, and you likely are as distractions dimish when you focus on their face. Also nod. Nodding is a subtle cue that you are following the story; think about when someone is listening to you, how do you know from their body language that they are paying attention? Do this.
Do: If it’s a bad time, stop what your doing for just a minute, get down on their level and look them in the eye, ask if its an emergency and if not then ask them if they would mind waiting ___amount of time. Say “It will make me a better listener”. Make sure to stick to the allocated time. Respect them just like you would a good friend.
Don’t: Look at your phone, the computer, TV, or even the chore you are in the middle of completing. Your child, not to mention anyone you are speaking with, gets the impression that you really aren’t fully here due to your body language. You likely are not looking at them or facing them, which makes it harder to listen fully and hear what they are saying; plus, you are missing out on body language cues.
Take a Technology Break
Do: Put the phone down. I have talked with hundreds of elementary and adolescent aged children. One of the biggest complaints I hear is “When my mom/dad picks me up from school (dance, soccer, ect) and they are on the phone it puts me in a bad mood, I don’t want to talk to them afterwards.” First of all, it’s illegal in most states to talk on the phone in a school zone, so hang up for that reason. Secondly, it makes kids feel unimportant; as though they are a chore or burden (I had a third grade girl use the word burden in this situation). Use your car travel time as an opportunity to have uninterrupted time with your kids. Catch up on the day, play a game, talk about the music on the radio, stay connected.
Do: Talk about talking on the phone: Have you ever been stuck in the car with someone on the phone? It’s annoying. If you have to make a call, make it brief and let your child know in advance, as well as the party you are calling “Honey, I have to make a call to let Dad know we are running a few minutes late. Can you do me a favor and be quite for just two minutes?” Also let the receiving end know you are in the car with the kids “I only have a second I’m in the car…” Keep it short. If you want them to respect you when they get a phone, you have to do the technology teaching now.
Don’t: Text/email/Google and drive, even at a stop light. Your kids will be drivers eventually and you are the role models for their driving behavior. I had a young woman who told me her mother made her take the wheel while she was finishing an email, the girl was 14. Needless to say, not the best role model, not to mention this particular client’s mother was always texting, emailing, or on the phone in front of her, she told me often she felt like work was more important than spending time with her. Sad.
Summarize and stick to the point
Do: Listen and summarize. A teenager will come into my office venting about her “horrible day”. After her rant I may say “Wow, it sounds like you had a rough day!” or “Sorry to hear about that situation in the lunch room, that must have been really hard. Is there anything I can do to help?”
Do: Empathize and ask relevant questions. I suggest parents to listen and respond with empathy and feeling words “that must have been hard”, “Wow, tell me more.” “It sounds like your handling this well, even with the rough day.” “Really…What did he/she/your teacher say?” Too many questions may annoy them, so stick to relevant questions about the situation at hand. If they say they don’t feel like talking about it, let them know that you are here to listen when they are, don’t push them to talk- huge roadblock in communication. Questions show others that you are following their story; AKA listening.
Don’t: Change the topic or make it about you. There is nothing more frustrating then when someone does this. One of the biggest complaints I get from kids is when parents will immediately try and give them advice or use this time as an opportunity to recollect on their own childhood. Of course you are doing this as a learning tool, but most kids see it as taking away from their thunder, thus shutting them down, and the shutting the door to communication. Use your stories about similar situations after they are done venting, and ask them if they want to hear how you handled a similar situation, don’t demand that they hear it. They will stop listening, I promise.
Bottom line, notice when you don’t feel entirely heard; whether it by friends, spouse, or your children, and ask yourself “Am I doing this to them?” You may not be, but it’s always worth an introspective look, your children model much of your behavior. Teach them to be good listeners, and better communication patterns will be developed. Also keep your word, if you say you will be off in two minutes get off in two minutes! Kids use your word to gauge respect, and it feels disrespectful when one does not stick to their end of the bargain.
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