Learn to Listen-- About Kids

Parents tend to talk a lot. They have a lot to say, face it, years and years of words building up inside. And kids, well, they’re helpless, captive. What a position of power it is, being so much taller, so much better at words, knowing so much more of life and love, anger and madness, right and wrong.

Those of us without verbal skills may not say anything, might even over-look a child’s errant behavior. That’s sometimes called benign neglect. Or, worse, they succumb to bullying or unfair, unreasonable disciplinary tactics (usually poorly executed) that alienate the child. Kids, as they grow and become more confident, can make fools out of us, force us to play a hand that's already been played unsuccessfully many times over. But even when it feels like we’re losing, we’re really ahead. Why?

They need us to love them and approve of them and their choices, as insane as those choices sometimes seem to be. (The best blog, by the way, on parenting and giving kids healthy choices is Of Fish and Family. I'm not saying you have to give in to what kids want, by the way, just entertain their ideas).

If you parent well, your children will come to you when the rest of the world treats them badly. That's the reason for family, really, to provide a supportive place to lift us up when we’re down, support us not only physically, but emotionally, into adulthood. It’s a sign that we’ve been successful if they call us when they need us, especially when they have no where else to turn, and that happens. We can always say no if “helping” the child is enabling, if it makes it easier for the child to repeat compulsive, destructive behavior.

It's hard to recognize that the power differential is in our favor when faced with an oppositional toddler or rebellious adolescent (who may not be small but is still dependent and vulnerable, despite the capacity to drive us nuts). But the power differential is there. We have the car keys, so to speak, and the experience, and professional resources to turn to for support, if necessary. For example, we can choose to bail them out of jail, defend them in court, give that second chance that they will give our grandchildren.

Parents can run circles around their kids if they want, especially if we strategize, include a spouse or a partner. If one of us sides with a child over the another, we lose power. There's no way to win if the adults don't sit on the executive committee.

The executive committee in a family should consist of at least two parents or partners who make decisions together about the kids. Ideally, we leave the kids off the committee,  Ideally, because in some families, one or both of the parents may not be psychologically able to make sound decisions, and in some families, there is no partner. And in some families the adults are more like children than their children.

The most powerful strategy is listening to the child, and teaching the child to listen back. The single most powerful weapon we have is our capacity to listen until the other runs out of words, is talked out. When a person talks it all out, it feels good (usually), it is the essence of therapy, really. The speaker respects the listener.

I sometimes tell the story of a therapist (with permission) married with two young children and another on the way. She wasn't working outside the home, and one day took a phone call from her husband's partner who spilled the bad news that both had lost their jobs. The therapist went wild with anxiety and fear, but she decided that this wasn't about her, she would wait until he got home and see what he had to say. He came home that evening and she greeted him, Let's talk.

They sat down on the sofa. She didn't say another thing for an hour and a half. When he finally stopped talking he turned to her and said, simply, Thank you. It was then that this therapist understood the power of listening. She says it influenced how she practices, now that she’s back to work.

Those of us who have been in therapy know this, how good it feels to be heard, uninterrupted. It feels like unconditional love.

Copyright 2006, TherapyDoc


Anonymous said…
I listen plenty, but when it's time for me to talk, my daugher doesn't listen to me at all. I can't just agree and let her do all kinds of things because her friends want her to. I don't agree with what she says. What do I do?
therapydoc said…
You don't have to do anything. You hold your ground. You let her talk and talk and talk, you smile, act respectful, ask questions, ask more questions, and ask even more questions. This is your chance to show concern for her friends, to ask about them. If you act like you really care (and you should) then your kid will trust that in fact you do care and will tell you when she and her friends are in over their heads. The key is not to judge, but to show concern and caring, even fear for the welfare of people that you hardly know and in fact, don't trust. That's what she's doing. It is only when you are on her team that she'll hear what you really have to say. I'm not saying it's easy, by the way, but it really isn't something to run away from. The well-being of her friends affects her. You should care.

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