Accurately understanding what your child thinks, from their point of view, means putting yourself in their shoes and looking at the world through their eyes. Dr. Nanika Coor explains how the skill of active listening, when practiced, can bolster your child’s well being and deepen the bond between you.
I’ve introduced this audience to a handful of the parenting and communication approaches that inspire my psychotherapeutic work with parents. A central theme among them is sensitivity to a child’s inner experience—their thoughts, feelings, and intentions and how they motivate your child’s external behavior. When you are skilled in the mental process of sensing into your own and your child’s mind—and what your two minds are doing together—the more easily you can interpret and predict your own behavior and theirs.
When your perceptions are generally accurate, your internal response and outward actions will generally match up with your child’s inner experience of themselves, of you, and of the interaction between you. Most importantly, when you’re able to imagine your child’s mind accurately more often than not, and verbally or nonverbally reflect back to them your understanding of their internal experience, your child feels felt by you.
Your capacity to do this complex mental maneuver is called reflective functioning. Your skills in this area depend on the reflective functioning skills of your early significant caregivers and their ability to use them to understand your inner experience and communicate that understanding to you. Your child’s development of reflective function is in turn influenced by yours.
A great practice for building reflective functioning skills in both you and your child is active listening. The concept for this kind of communication skill was conceived by psychologist Dr. Carl Rogers and was incorporated into many psychotherapy modalities. Active listening can help you understand your child, and ultimately help your child understand themselves.
Criticizing, judging, and commanding shuts down conversation.
Active listening reduces messages that convey unacceptance
Dr. Thomas Gordon, a mentee and student of Dr. Rogers and creator of the Parent Effectiveness Training program, reminds parents of the importance of acceptance in the parent-child relationship. You might think you’re helping your child do better in the future by telling them what you don’t accept about them right now. Quite the contrary, says Dr. Gordon. Criticizing, judging, and commanding shuts down conversation. These “communication roadblocks” compel kids to distance themselves from you and keep their problems and feelings to themselves.
On the other hand, when your child knows that you’ll truly accept them no matter what—just as they are—that knowledge frees them to move from there and start thinking about how they might want to be different, or how they might change or solve problems. Your acceptance is the fertile soil that enables the "seed" of your child’s natural capacities to grow.
Active listening demonstrates acceptance
When your child is engaged in self-directed play or trying to tell you something confusing or troublesome to them, refrain from communicating your own feelings, thoughts, judgments, questions, and ideas. That way your child feels that what they are doing or saying is okay with you just as it is, right now.
But it’s not enough to just internally accept your child—you have to demonstrate that in some way, verbally or nonverbally.
Show nonverbal acceptance by:
- not intervening in your child’s play activities—Let them do things their way, and even make mistakes or not do things "right." Unless you’re invited to join them, let them just… be.
- passively listening—Sometimes it’s helpful to stay mostly silent when your child spontaneously expresses their big feelings or problems to you. Give undivided attention, and use neutral invitations to say more like “Oh!” “Huh!” and “I see.”
- respecting when your child doesn’t feel like talking—Sometimes your child will decline your neutral invitations to say more and that’s okay.
- only active listening when you have the time/attention—Children feel hurt and relational ruptures happen when kids release bottled up feelings and are only half-listened to.
Show verbal acceptance by:
- being an active receiver of your child’s messages—Try to understand what your child is feeling or what their message means, put that into your own words, and feed it back to them to check for accuracy so they know they’ve been understood.
- feed back to them only what you’re sensing your child’s message meant—Nothing less, nothing more. Don’t send a message of your own, like an opinion or a question, interpretation, or advice.
Active listening requires certain attitudes
When you’re using active listening, you run the risk of sounding insincere, mechanical, and fake. So Dr. Gordon identifies 6 necessary attitudes for being a truly effective active listener:
- The willingness and desire to listen. If you don’t have time, let your child know.
- The genuine desire to help your child with their problem. If you don’t have the bandwidth, wait until you do.
- You must actually be able to accept your child’s feelings, no matter what they are or how different they are from what you think they "should" be.
- You need to trust that your child is capable of tolerating and working through their feelings and finding solutions to problems.
- You have to understand that feelings are temporary, not permanent. Breathe through anxiety that may arise in response to harsh or hateful feelings toward themselves or others. These feelings aren’t forever, they’re right now.
- You need to see your child as a separate person with their own mind, identity, perceptions, and feelings. To be helpful you need to “be with” them, rather than be enmeshed with them.
Active listening in everyday parenting situations
Active listening is a great skill to practice when your child is frustrated or unhappy—when their needs are going unmet in some way. Dr. Ross Greene’s Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (CPS) model, which I discussed a few weeks ago in an episode called “How to Reduce Your Child’s Challenging Behavior,” involves solving problems collaboratively with children. The first step of the collaborative process is called the Empathy Step and involves aspects of active listening.
As your child develops into the tween and teen years, they may become more private and peer-focused rather than family- and parent-focused. Of course, this is developmentally normal—they need to start developing their own identity separate from you in preparation for adulthood. So when your 15-year-old spontaneously strikes up a conversation with you, put down whatever you’re doing, and start actively listening to them! They’re much more likely to keep talking and much more likely to strike up more conversations!
For the next 30 days, when your child expresses frustration or brings you some problem or issue, try to listen to them for at least 10 minutes without sharing any opinions of your own. Show acceptance nonverbally and by using neutral verbal invitations to encourage them to tell you more. Afterward, reflect on what you learned about your child’s inner experience. Are the perceptions you have of your child different than they were initially at the end of those 10 minutes? Were there moments that you’re glad you held your tongue? How difficult was it not to share advice, ask questions, agree, or pass judgment? Let me know how you did!
As you unconditionally accept their thoughts and feelings, your child learns to accept and like themselves as a result.
Active listening is how you make your acceptance felt by your child, and it’s a great way to build your sensitivity to a child’s inner experience. Putting your own agenda to the side, and tuning in to your child’s reality and frame of reference really puts you in their shoes and helps you see things through their eyes. It creates the kind of relational safety that encourages them to talk, share their feelings, and trust you to hold space for them. Your child opens up more and wants to be in connection with you more.
As you unconditionally accept their thoughts and feelings, your child learns to accept and like themselves as a result. Active listening also builds self-esteem: it helps your child get a sense of their own worth and move in the direction of growth, constructive change, psychological health, and reaching their full potential. Most importantly, your deep listening gives your child an inner sense that they are loved simply because they exist.