Over the last 10 years of working as a parenting educator as well as working in secondary schools teaching Sex Education, the one thing teenagers say again and again is that they wish their parents would just listen. They often confide that the reason they don’t tell their parents about what is happening in their world is that they are usually met with alarm, judgment or giving advice on what should be done to fix whatever is wrong.
Many teens say that they want to tell their parents their worries and problems, but sharing often just leaves them not feeling heard.
One 15yr old girl told me “when I tell my Mum and Dad what I’m really thinking about, they freak out and my Mum gets all panicked and starts trying to fix everything. It doesn’t help me. I know I can work this stuff out and her panicking just makes it worse. So I just don’t say anything anymore.”
When I quiz them on whether this has always been the case, most of them say, this is the way it’s always been. “They just tell me what I should do.”
So often what children (all humans really) want is someone to hear them and offer them some understanding. This starts from when our children are babies and continue through those formative toddler years.
It’s a fundamental need of all humans to be understood. It’s what helps us to feel connected to others and it also creates a secure attachment. Especially for babies and toddlers, when their feelings (big and small) are met with compassion, empathy, and understanding, trust is built and they feel secure in their love with the caregiver. The imprinted message in the child’s psyche is “ it’s safe for me to bring all of myself to my caregiver and it will be accepted.”
The beauty of starting this when your children are little is that it becomes an imprint in your child that I can go to Mum or Dad and they listen. This means as they grow and the problems get bigger, they know that you are a safe listening place.
However, listening calmly can actually be a very tricky thing to do. So often we don’t listen, we are in our heads thinking of the solution or interrupting our child. Perhaps telling them why it’s not a big deal or this happened because you did x, y, z or simply trying to stop the complaining and fix the problem, as a means to make ourselves feel better.
But what if we stopped talking and just really listened, not just to the words but all the feelings?
The next time your child launches into complaining about something and the urge rises within you to tell them why they shouldn’t worry or why it is not that bad or why it is fair… just think about what your child is trying to express.
They are saying that life feels a bit hard, a bit unfair, a bit stuck… and instead of launching into the parental fix, try offering some empathy and understanding. “Oh, that sounds hard” “I’m sorry to hear you feel like that, tell me more.”
And then you stop talking and listen. Let the whining, complaining, yelling, crying all come out.
And when there is a pause, when they take a breath, when all the dust has settled, you could offer…
“Oh yes, I hear that feels hard for you.”
Then and only after a child has finished expressing their woes, you could offer something like “Let me know if you want some help or have you got any ideas on what you could do now.”
The trick is, that when we can give them that listening (not fixing) once they have expressed it and felt heard, it is often easier to move on.
When kids don’t get to fully express their upset, they often have to go over it again and again and again until they feel heard. This can look like whinging or constant complaining or continuous feelings of life is not fair.
So if you can take a breath, bite your tongue and listen (I know it’s so much easier said than done – after all, we all like to fix) then often a child will move through their feelings and find a solution that feels good for them.
Now, I am aware that it all sounds good in theory and such a simple thing to do, but listening is a learned skill. Most clients that I work with around parenting, didn’t grow up in a family where deep listening was the norm. Unless we have the insights to change certain behaviors, we usually repeat the same patterns we were imprinted with. One of the ways to create a deeper capacity to listen (to your child, partner, friend, colleague) is through a listening partnership.
A listening partnership is a person that we can call or speak with whenever we feel our own stuff bubbling to the surface. A person that can just listen with empathy and compassion. They don’t try to fix or offer advice. This could be a friend, a relative, a mother from Kindergarten, or someone you can be set up with via a Listening Partnership group.
Their job is to just listen and give us space and holding, enabling us to work through our stories and feel heard. This could be ranting about a situation at work, it could be expressing some grief or pain about your kids, it could be just venting about the challenges of parenthood. It could be 10 minutes, half an hour – whatever time you agree on.
They offer you empathy and understanding, but don’t try to fix or jump in with their own version of your issue, they just listen. And then when your time is up, you swap and listen to them. It is meant to be different from therapy as the person listening, does not offer advice, just a compassionate ear.
It’s amazing what a listening partner can teach us. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgment and control. When we also have that given to us in return, we begin to embody aware listening.
And the results… Well nearly every client I have worked with who has implemented a listening partnership, says it is one of the greatest support tools that they have for their parenting journey.
When we feel heard as an adult, it allows us to have more space and compassion to hear our children.
So, I invite you to be aware of your listening skills. Have a day of biting your tongue, offering empathy and see how it feels.
Listening is a bridge to connection and connection is the magic balm than can create cooperation and harmony in families. So, try and say less and listen more.