Why Listening to Your Child is So Critical
Parents, teachers, and mental health clinicians such as online school psychologists are generally the first lines of support for children and teenagers. An open line of communication with children and teens is essential to building trust. Aside from the intrinsic value of trust, that trust proves to be vital when children and teens are experiencing difficulties. They need to feel that they can turn to you for help.
Aside from forging open communication, it is crucial to identify when children and teens are in the midst of an emotional struggle. Often when children and teens are struggling, they don’t express their feelings but rather remain closed and tight-lipped. They don’t easily reach out for support or assistance. Or perhaps they don’t know that help is available. This makes it all the more critical for parents, teachers, and mental health clinicians to be sensitive to detect the problem.
Encouraging children and teens to be open and talk is often challenging. It is for this reason that parents, teachers, and mental health clinicians need strategies and tactics to jump-start the conversation so they can access a window into the lives of their children and teenagers. The good news is that engaging children and teens in conversation is a skill that can be enhanced through practice.
1. Kids and Teenagers Need to Feel Safe
Unless you can create a sense of safety and security with the child or teen, the entire effort to communicate is going nowhere fast. Kids and teens need to be put at ease before they will talk. Let them know why you want to speak with them. Kids, especially, are often afraid that they may be in trouble and that consenting to talk is only inviting problems or punishment. It would be best if you reassured them that you are only coming to help.
Parents, for example, might consider scheduling a weekly time to talk, thereby establishing an expectation that will ease the flow of the conversation. This could be as simple as eating breakfast or lunch together. Alternatively, you could ask the child or teen to write down her feelings in a note that won’t be read until after bedtime. Try anything to take the pressure off, while simultaneously conveying the message that you are always available.
2. The Call for Help Needs Your Affirmation
If a child or teenager shares with you that she is feeling upset or sad, let her know how proud you are that she is sharing those feelings. Acknowledge and appreciate the courage that it took to speak up and the trust that was invested in you. If the help that is being requested from you is more than you can provide, don’t hesitate to consult with a mental health professional such as an online school psychologist.
It is essential to create an atmosphere of openness and safety for the child or teenager to express any feelings such as sadness, anger, anxiety, fear, frustration, joy, and excitement. Be open to talking about any kind of emotions at any time, assuring the kid that there won’t be any judgment. Aside from “opening the door” to the child’s inner world, expressing feelings helps to develop a “feelings vocabulary.”
3. Body Language Needs Your Focus
If you want to go to the core of what another person is feeling and attempt to communicate, you will need to focus on and understand body language and tone in addition to the words themselves. Aside from tuning in to what the body language is telling you, it is best to respond with non-verbal messages as well.
For example, if you say, ‘You are exceptionally quiet this afternoon. Did something happen at school that you would like to discuss? Pay careful attention to your child’s facial expressions and body language. Listening isn’t only about hearing the words, but frequently even more about comprehending the message contained within.
4. Hearing isn’t Enough; You Need to be Listening!
It is beneficial to praise children when they are willing to communicate and do it well. Praising children when they’re communicating well will encourage them to keep doing it. Children, perhaps even more than adults, love that compliment and will also sometimes do that which is uncomfortable when given one.
Often you can’t predict when the child will share something that is bothering her. Don’t wait for that moment to speak with your child. Get into the habit of talking about things as you go through the day. This opens up the lines of communication, making it more comfortable for your child to come to you when necessary. The dialogue already exists, merely needing to be directed to the problem at hand.
You need to take the time and have the patience to actively listen to what your child or teenager has to say. Often, what kids are looking for is someone who will listen to them. It is counterproductive to offer suggestions before fully hearing their perspective. At times a parent or teacher’s anxiety will prompt her attempt to fix everything. But often, just listening, not fixing is what is needed.
The capacity to listen and be sensitive to anything that the child or teenager has to share — be it anger, shame, anxiety, fear, or sadness — is what is essential and needed. Showing your child that you care about her thoughts and feelings and are interested in helping her to express them is the most helpful thing that you can do.
An easy way to let your child know that you are really listening is to repeat back what was said while making lots of eye contact (unless of course, you are driving — which can be one of the best times to engage your “captive” child in conversation). Don’t jump in, cut off the child, or put words in her mouth. This is true even when she says something ridiculous or is struggling to find the words to express herself.
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