I’ve had some fabulous experiences of the power of listening and being listened to. They convinced me to make it a priority to listen well to my kids:
- There was this class at church, “Listening for Heaven’s Sake,” where we worked in groups of four to practice new skills. ie. Person 1 shares something personal with Person 2, Person 2 listens and summarizes what she heard, including any feelings she picked up. 3 and 4 then give feedback to 2. Then everyone switches. I’ve never had a more effective learning experience, or realized how much I needed to improve at listening.
- I was hired to teach, “Magic Circle,” a program where young kids go around a circle, taking turns saying something in response to a prompt, such as, “A time I felt happy.” Only the kid holding the stuffed animal gets to speak. After everyone has had a turn, they go around again, and each kid says something they heard another kid say. It was so powerful for the children to experience being heard that I started using a similar approach with older groups. One teenage guy, super attractive and popular, told me that our weekly check-in was the only time all week when he felt that someone really listened to him.
- I got a Masters’ in Counseling from the University of Cincinnati, and the program had an excellent emphasis on empathy, warmth and respect. We practiced listening, and making only, empathetic responses for twenty minutes at a time. It’s amazing how deep people will go when you only listen and reflect back what you’re hearing.
After all that, I’ve had no excuse as a mom not to listen well to my kids. But even after those great experiences, I find that two things can get in the way:
- Being too busy: You’re not going to listen well when you are task driven. And kids, especially teenagers, don’t spill their guts on your schedule. It’s on theirs, when they’re sensing a good connection. So I make sure to sit down with them at dinner most nights, ask a few questions, and mostly listen. Even if they’re eating at different times, I try for a few minutes a day with each one, when they have put down their devices and taken a break from homework. If they seem troubled and don’t talk about it, I’ll try again later when they’re alone, ask for five minutes and say something like, “Tell me about your life.” If they still don’t have much to say, I try not to push. They’ll come when they’re ready, but we have to keep giving them windows.
- Giving too much advice: Nothing kills disclosure faster than unwanted advice. So, for example, if a kid admits they have fallen behind in their school work, it’s hard not to say, “Have you asked for help/communicated with your teacher/ stopped watching four episodes of ‘The Flash’ in a row?” When I bite my tongue though, and listen, then say something like, “Sounds like you’re feeling trapped under the load,” then I usually end up hearing them come up with their own plan for how they’ll climb out. Of course, younger kids will need more direction, but they still need to be listened to first.
It is so painful when communication between parents and kids breaks down. It’s not always the parents’ fault. Sometimes kids are hiding something, or pulling away in clumsy reaches toward maturity. But there is an incredibly strong bond between parents and kids; that’s how God made us. So careful, patient listening is going to lead to a good connection in most situations. Eventually!