As therapists at The Youth Fairy, we like to think we’re pretty good at listening – it’s the hallmark of any great therapist. Aside from having the privilege of working with many, many young people, our knowledge and training have taught us one particularly important golden nugget: it’s good to talk, but it’s even better to listen!
Many of us might consider ourselves to be good listeners – perhaps you’re the friend who others can confide in, the mum on the playground who others share their woes with or the parent whose child can tell you anything. The truth is, we don’t have to be excellent therapists to be good listeners but, in reading our blog today, we ask you to consider one all-important question:
When was the last time you listened – really listened?
More often than we realise, we may think that we are listening but actually what we are doing is waiting for our opportunity to talk. We want to share our stories, our opinions, and our advice. As a parent, we want our children to talk more, we want them to share what’s going on in their lives and know that we are there for them. As our children get older, it becomes harder for them to talk to us – and harder for us to listen.
Why is that? Well, the topics get harder, our opinions may not be as valued as much, and our children’s own opinions become stronger. We also spend less time together, and, as our children become more independent, we lose some of the influence we once had.
Those of us of a certain age will remember the BT adverts telling us that it’s good to talk – and it is. It’s one of our 3Ps as we like to call them: positive Interaction, which, if your child already works with one of The Youth Fairies, you will know the importance of. As parents, during our interactions with our children, if all we do is talk, it’s likely the interaction is not going to be as positive as it might otherwise be, because we also need to listen. We might even think that the problem isn’t with our listening but actually with our children’s ability to hear! The reality is that the challenge is on both sides – for both us as parents and for our children. Listening is a skill that takes practice, and when we consider the old saying ‘we have two ears and one mouth and we should use them accordingly,’ perhaps that is a very apt way for us to consider the balance that listening deserves.
So, how do we get better at listening so that our children (in particular our teenagers) find it easier to talk to us?
Interestingly, research undertaken by Mental Health First Aid, England found that young people did not feel listened to if:
- Adults talked over them or finished their sentences for them
- Parents spoke for them
- There was a lack of eye contact
- Adults talked about them to others in front of them
- They felt criticised
- Parents dismissed what they had to say
- They felt their views were belittled or unimportant
- Adults took sides
- Adults did not celebrate their strengths and the things that were going well
- They felt pushed into situations and their own boundaries were ignored
Clearly, we need to show we are listening attentively – with our complete attention. This is easier said than done as there are so many distractions in our busy lives: social media, chores, technology, Alexa even, are all working on dividing our attention.
There is a myth that we (mums especially) can multi-task. It’s a myth. Actually, what we are doing is dividing our attention. Think of your brain like a computer – it’s as if you have lots of tabs open and, rather than focusing on just one activity, or one tab, you are jumping from one tab to another. Women don’t multi-task, but as mums (or the main caregiver) we need to keep many tabs open – and because each tab is dividing our attention, we are actually unable to do them as well as the times when we are focussed on just one tab. This, of course, also applies to listening – we need to close the other tabs if we are going to listen. We need to be attentive, and when our children notice they have our full attention, they begin to feel heard and valued.
So, how might we listen more attentively so that our children are more likely to talk?
- Close the other tabs. Put down your phone, turn off the news, and stop making dinner. As busy as our days become, it is so important to show our children that what they say matters. In this way, they are more likely to open up to us about the big things.
- Consider your timing. When is the best time for you to talk to your child so you can really show you are listening? Pick your timing carefully – just as they are on their way to school or as soon as they arrive home may not always be the best time.
- Give gentle eye contact. Take the lead from your child. Some children can struggle with eye contact and find it challenging, and if it’s a particularly difficult topic, they might want to avoid eye contact altogether.
- Listen – seek first to understand. Try not to interrupt or offer solutions unless they are asked for, however hard that may feel. Children want their experiences to be validated so saying something like “I understand” might seem like the right thing to say, but in fact, even if you have had a similar experience in the past, it was your experience and not theirs.
- Reflect back. Repeating what your child has said out loud such as by saying, “I think I heard … have I understood?” is a brilliant way of showing you have really tuned in to what your child is saying and that it is important.
- Ask questions. Once we have listened first, it’s important to ask those questions that help us to understand more of how our children are feeling, what they are struggling with, and what they think the options are. This shows that you are enabling them to develop independence and validating what they say.
- Ask what they would like from you. This is a question we might often forget to ask yet it is such a powerful one for building close relationships with our children. Sometimes this can be a good question at the beginning of the conversation but sometimes it’s better left until the end. Asking something like, “did you need me to listen, or did you want to see if I could help in some way?” can be really helpful here.
- It might be that you are hearing things that concern you, or you might want to jump in and solve the problem, and rescue them or give them the wisdom of your experience. Instead, try to stay calm and be open. If the topic is a difficult one for you, they will appreciate you saying that you just want to take a moment to think about what they’ve said – go back to asking them what they want from you.
We live in a society where our children often feel judged. Opinions, rules, directions, and judgement can feel like it is coming from every angle, and talking openly with parents can feel scary.
If we allow children to talk without judgement, they are more likely to talk to us. Just as we need to practise listening, our children may need to practise talking. Give them opportunities to start with easy topics, begin asking them what they think about situations and ask for their opinion – and then value their opinion, even if (in fact, especially if) it differs from yours.
As, in the words of Stephen Covey, “Seek first to understand, then be understood.”