As parents, it's easy to want to jump in and solve your kids problems, but that can be destructive. Experts offer tips on how parents can be effective listeners.

By Heather Osterman-Davis
April 17, 2020
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"I really miss my friends," my 6-year-old daughter recently told me during stay-at-home orders for COVID-19. "I'm afraid I'll never see them again."

After giving her a hug and telling her I miss my own friends too, I morphed into problem-solving mode, offering to set up a FaceTime or online gaming session for her and her buddies, and began listing other ways she could stay connected to them.

"Hey, Mommy," my daughter said softly as she looked down at her feet. "I don't want to hurt your feelings, but can this be a 'Listening Talk?'"

I came up with the idea of "Listening Talks" with my daughter to combat my tendency to respond to her emotions by solving her problems instead of actually listening. While I try to incorporate effective listening into our daily communication, sometimes I need a reminder.

This is a common parental tendency, says Laura Markham, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Child. "As soon as our child expresses unhappiness, we're wired to try to fix it, so we stop listening and start recommending solutions," says Dr. Markham. Yet, this problem-solving approach can backfire.

Why Effective Listening Is Important to Kids

When parents begin offering solutions to their child's problems without hearing them out, kids can feel invalidated, frustrated, and often left without a satisfying solution, explains Dr. Markham.

Children want to know that you understand what they're saying, that they're not alone, and their words mean something. Effective listening succeeds in conveying the message "you matter" to your child, says Katheryn Maguire, Ph.D., professor of family communication at Wayne State University.

On another occasion when my daughter was sharing that this was the worst possible year for school to be closed because she'd never had such a kind teacher before and never would again, it was tempting to attack the logic by pointing out wonderful teachers she'd had previously and would likely have in the future, but that would have been a mistake.

"When parents dismiss or rationalize away a child's emotions we unintentionally convey the idea that what they have to say isn't important, which can cause them to bottle up," says Sara Zaidi, M.D., LMHC, LPC, a NYC-based child therapist and founder of Building Healthy Minds and Happy Families, which provides therapeutic childhood services.

Listening also allows kids to be able to come up with a solution on their own. "When a kid speaks, their brain is literally rewiring itself to understand the problem. When we jump in to solve, we actually stop their problem-solving process," says Emily W. King, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Raleigh, North Carolina. And even if they don't come up with their own solution, listening can make kids feel comfortable and eager in enlisting your help in identifying a solution.

How Parents Can Be Effective Listeners

The first step to helping your child is to check in with yourself. "Our child's emotions can trigger our own anxieties and that anxiety keeps us from being present in the moment," says Dr. Markham. "Take a deep breath and remind yourself it's not an emergency."

It's also critical to avoid trying to listen to kids while your attention is elsewhere, says Dr. Maguire. In the current climate of increased stress, fewer resources, and more demands, parents might not instantly be available—and that's OK, as long as you let your child know that. Dr. Maguire explains there's no harm in saying, "I really want to talk with you. Can you give me five minutes to finish what I'm doing?"

Next, focus on letting your child share all their emotions without interruption. Once they are done, make sure to validate their thoughts. Amy Phillips, Ph.D., a social worker and parent coach based on Long Island, New York, explains a simple process to do this: state the feeling you perceive your child is feeling, restate the situation they described, and ask if you got it right. But be careful not to color your responses with judgement, whether good or bad.

For example, after my daughter shared her thoughts about school, I used a form of this by saying, "It seems that you're very sad and feel a sense of loss about Mr. H and you're worried you won't get a chance to go back to class again. Is that right?"

If a child seems unsure what to feel or what to do, prompts can encourage reflection, ranging from simple yes/no questions to open-ended ones. "Do you want a hug? Do you want my advice? Do you want to brainstorm strategies or just talk? What would you like from me? Do you have ideas on how we could fix this?"

Finally, be kind to yourself. There's a natural tendency to want a conversation or problem to be tied up in a bow by the end, but the truth is, this doesn't always happen. Leave room for the conversation to evolve, reassure your child that you're always there to listen, brainstorm, or if wanted, even offer advice.

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