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How to Listen to Your Child, Even When Listening is Hard

When your child's upset, you want to DO something to help. But the best remedy is being quiet.

By Carolina Diaz

Carolina is a Chilean journalist and a mother of two under ten. She recently founded a start-up, Memoria Creativa, where she collects the memories of families and the stories of people. It's the first time she is her own boss, and she loves it!

September 4, 2012

Tenderness, a lot of patience, plenty of time, and an open mind and willingness to listen to anything--these things are the best that we can offer our children to help them sustain themselves in a moment of anxiety or stress. But that's not quite enough: the most difficult part, perhaps, is learning to stay quiet,  to choose with our words with precision and economy, to wait for every new phrase in welcoming silence, and to lock away our own emotions. Above all, the most essential part is being capable of seeing our children how they are, not how we wish they were. As difficult as it is, to truly listen to them, we have to separate ourselves from our desires, aspirations or wishes that we have placed on them.

In all empathetic communication the majority of specialists usually identify four stages. However, every encounter between parent and child is unique and we have to learn to navigate them from the point of our experiences.

Observation: all the experts agree that empathy requires being capable of realizing the state of being of a person without saying a word. Prioritize the emotional state of your child, looking out for such things as an unusual greeting when she gets home from shool or an abnormal expression on her face. In this instant, and in the most natural way possible, we should say the most open phrase possible.  Say something that doesn’t confuse them, but rather that gets right to the point: “Was it a really intense soccer practice?” “Does the new teacher give a lot of homework?” Forget the customary question, “How was your day at school?” while avoiding its accompanying sighs and groans. It doesn’t open any doors to conversation. Be natural and spontaneous above all else.

Interest: Take note of whether you're child seems interested to want to talk. “Would you like to talk? Here I am.” Immediately afterword, in front of your child, turn of your cell phone, the television, or the computer. Close the book. Let your pen drop to the table. Your child will notice these real gestures and will realize that she's being listened to, that her emotions are important to you.

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Holding back: As we listen to our child's story, we have to maintain our silence; we have to be almost invisible, only very occasionally affirming the things that we're hearing by saying things like,  “The story doesn't sound so good,” or “I see you're pretty angry or sad or remorseful,” or “You look upset.” Your child doesn’t need to hear more than that, but she should understand that you understand how she feels and that intense emotions don’t scare you or upset you too much. Remain silent, seated, without moving a lot, accompanying them until their emotion has taken its course. Don’t change the subject. Don’t say you love her or that you're proud of her, because that isn't and never was in doubt. Don’t say that the issue or story is not a big deal, because for your child it is a big deal. Don’t say that everything will be ok, because that is for calming empathizing. What your child wants to feel is that you're capable of seeing her be upset for a moment without taking ownership of her story.  The truth is, it isn’t easy to be calm or quiet because we feel assaulted by our own emotions: “If I see that child that did this to you, I’ll show him/her who I am."  Saying something to this effect isn't empathetic. 

Closing: When we have listened to everything that our child has to say, then there's not much else to do besides tenderly determining whether there's anything more they want to say or tell you. Keep in mind that there is still space for them to share, that this is their space. If a solution didn’t appear spontaneously, we can extend a hand by offering up what we'd probably do if we were in their shoes. Or, even better, we can dig around in our memory and pull out a similar episode from our own lives which we can share. 

Translated from Spanish by Marisol Slater.