As a Super Parent, you are a natural teacher. But even Super Parents don’t have all the answers. How can you help your children avoid the abuse of drugs and alcohol? How can you encourage your children to express their natural emotions in healthy ways?
By Bennett Goldberg, M.A., Marriage and Family Therapist Intern, West Valley Counseling Center.
Listening to and understanding our children are two very different things.
Communication can be difficult for the best communicators but what about those who are just beginning the process? From an early age our children attempt to connect with us, on many levels at once, with few of the communications skills they’ll eventually possess as adults.
The process of listening to our children begins with parents’ (and other caregivers’) careful attention to the cries that a baby makes. In doing so, the parent or caregiver learns how to determine whether the child is hungry, wet, sleepy, or otherwise distressed. But listening soon becomes more complicated. As our children grow, they experience more types of distress and increase their repertoire of verbal and non-verbal communication methods. This is an important time to let your children know that you are listening and available:
Letting Your Children Know that You are Listening:
• When your children are talking about their concerns, stop whatever your are doing and listen.
• Let them complete their point before your respond and listen to their point of view, even if it difficult to hear.
• Repeat what you heard them say to ensure that you understand them correctly.
• Express interest in what they are saying without being intrusive.
Being Available for Your Children:
• Notice times when your kids are most likely to talk - for example, at bedtime, before dinner, in the car - and be available.
• Find time each week for a one-on-one activity with your child and avoid scheduling other activities during that time.
• Learn about your children’s interests and initiate conversation by sharing what you have been thinking about.
• Start the conversation; it lets your children know that your care about them and what’s happening in their lives.
Young children communicate for various reasons. Some of these communications are, of course, for physical comfort or emotional sharing and reassurance. By contrast, communications with emotional roots can have many different meanings.
This statement is pretty obvious. The operative word is “some”. Some communications are are purely about comfort the balance are rooted in reassurance and emotional sharing which can be highly ambiguous. This ambiguity is further compounded by the fact that some children are not as straightforward in their play and talk as others.
Little Things Mean a Lot
As a kindergartner, my son went through a phase where he needed reassurance each morning before he entered the classroom. This wasn’t unusual - everyone needs extra encouragement from time to time - but one morning he flat out refused to enter the classroom.
I decided not to be insistent. Instead, we sat together quietly on the playground outside his classroom. After a long while, my son told me that he and his classmates had practiced a fire drill the day before. Then he gave me a hug and went inside.
Problem solved? Hardly.
The next day my son repeated the previous morning’s routine and refused to go into the classroom. This situation continued every day for several months, much to his mother’s and my concern. What was going on? It took a while, but we finally figured out what our son was going through.
My son had spent the previous summer at camp. While he was there, he experienced a traumatic event. Several of his closest playmates were seriously injured, and all of the children were evacuated in a panic. In my son’s mind this meant that he was going to experience traumatic events on a regular basis. When his kindergarten teacher practiced fire drills with the students, it reinforced my son’s fear.
My son felt horribly unsafe in the world. He couldn’t communicate his fear, nor could he fully understand our reassurances. It took years for him to begin to feel safe at school, and to understand that his traumatic experience at summer camp was most likely a once-in-a-lifetime event.
A Tough Job for Parents
It is important, as a parent, to see and hear our children - good, bad or otherwise. Listening is difficult because of what we can’t or don’t want to hear:
• that our children are angry at us (it’s even harder when they have good reason)
• that our children are feeling afraid, sad, jealous, sexual, or vengeful (depending on what we’re uncomfortable with)
• that they feel ashamed or guilty, or make us feel guilty
• that their distress is very real and not easily relieved
Our temptation as parents is to treat things as if they are simple, to pretend we always know what to do, and to listen judgmentally - or not to listen at all.
Getting the Point Across
A child may communicate using words, actions, or some “disguised” manner whose code is difficult to decipher but might include a broad range of verbal and non-verbal cues including: stoicism, clapping, singing, tantrums, isolation and more.[example]. The communication may make the adult uncomfortable, but listening is worth the effort.
Helping a child to understand and accept his or her feelings is a crucial step in the development of emotional intelligence (being aware of your emotions and able to express them in a healthy way), promotes the child’s mental health, and is crucial to establishing solid relationships in the future.
On the average, children who learn how to establish meaningful relationships as toddlers, small children, and adolescents are unlikely to get involved in substance abuse, violence, unprotected sex, or other maladaptive behaviors.
Genuinely hearing and seeing our children is one of the best gifts we can give them.
The staff at West Valley Counseling Center provides therapy and family counseling to dozens of clients every day. In this blog series our therapists will explore how to create “valuing relationships” throughout your child’s life. We will go step by step through a child’s emotional development, giving clear descriptions with real-world examples of how to foster strong emotional relationships and help our children deal with the ups and downs of life. Look for our next blog coming soon.
Bookmark this blog, and visit us soon for “Listening to Your Child with an Open Heart, Part 4: Early Adolescence and Transitioning to Middle School.”