Active Listening

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A major part of good communication between parent and child is active listening. But, what is ACTIVE listening? It means not merely staring at the child while he or she talks, but actively taking in what is said and exploring its meaning.

The mechanics of active listening are simple, though a parent may need to remind him or herself of them when interrupted during a busy day.

Focus on the child’s eyes, but keep aware of the child’s posture and movements, tone, rhythm and other physical factors. Stifle – for a few moments, at least – the urge to immediately respond with a ‘quick fix’ or piece of advice. Often, the goal isn’t problem resolution as much as simply hearing what the child has to say. Like adults, children want to be heard.

With active listening a parent is positioning him or herself to carry out another important aspect of communication: echoing back what has been said. But ‘echoing’ doesn’t mean ‘parroting’. In order to truly hear, you have to engage the brain, not just the ears. Reflecting back what has been said, in the parents own words, demonstrates that not only has the child been heard, but – more importantly – understood.

Sympathy may or may not be part of the equation. A parent does not have to feel obligated to be sympathetic to a child’s expression of a desire to punch a sibling. But neither should one be immediately dismissive of any expression of ‘negative’ thoughts or feelings. Responses such as ‘You don’t really mean that’ may be true and honest, but they are not always helpful.

It isn’t necessary to be morally or emotionally neutral, simply objective. Before words – and the thoughts and feelings behind them – can be evaluated, they have to be understood.

Some conversations will be spontaneous. But parents have lives, too. They can’t reasonably be expected to instantly drop everything they are doing. Those goals may well be important to both them and the child, even though the child may not be able to grasp that.

Still it’s important to both parent and child to be open to hearing the child when he or she has something to say. Too many ‘tell me later’ episodes will erode trust and the child’s interest in communicating.

Fortunately, there are creative ways to deal with this dilemma.

For those old enough to do so, one method may involve having the child write out thoughts and feelings and place it in a cookie jar or send it via email. This should be reserved for those times when the parent is unavailable due to work and other important activities. It should not be a regular occurrence, lest it become a way of avoiding face-to-face communication.

However the listening is carried out, it’s important to allow the child the freedom to express him or herself completely. Any subject or viewpoint should be allowed.

Once again, it isn’t necessary to be morally or emotionally neutral to any and every statement. But children don’t always have the moral knowledge or experience of adults. What an adult knows instantly to be wrong, a child must learn – preferably from an active listening adult.


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