Active Listening---So What’s the Big Deal?
Isn’t active listening like talking to your kid, like you always do? That’s often the first question when I introduce the concept of active listening to folks in my Christian parenting classes. The answer is both yes and no.
Yes, active listening involves talking with your kids, not talking to them. It’s definitely, at first anyway, not like you always talk to them. Active listening is talking with your kids about what they seem to be feeling in the moment. When all is good and well, by all means instruct, direct, and check in with your kids. However, if you see signs of what I call an emotional fever, that’s when your talking with them becomes more helpful and strategic.
So, 13-year old Allison comes in from school and stomps upstairs without even saying “hi.” You are in the kitchen cutting up vegetables and you holler at her, “Allison, sweetie, come into the kitchen for a minute, please.” You were so busy with your activities that you missed the behavioral cues Allison was giving out when she came home from school.
“What!!” Allison stops in the doorway, putting her hands on hips.
“Excuse me, young lady,” mom huffs back, “What’s with the attitude?”
“Leave me alone,” Allison mumbles as she looks at the floor.
This exchange is more frequent in common households than we want to believe. Mom was so preoccupied with her activities that she didn’t pick on her daughter’s “stuff.” Allison was reluctantly dutiful because she was consumed with her pain from whatever school day she had. This is a lose/lose situation.
As the parent, we want to be tuned into our kids at all times. The key is noticing any trace of an emotional fever. Attitude, disrespect, isolation, behavior the opposite of normal for your child, these are examples of an emotional fever.
When our child has a physical fever, we instantly pick up on her symptoms and act accordingly. Take their fever, give lots of liquids, get them to lay down and rest. We treat the symptoms of the fever.
So too with the symptoms of an emotional fever. Except we treat these symptoms with our words. Active listening is a big deal because your words can soothe your child’s feelings, be a balm to her soul. Active listening is more than empathy. “I can imagine what you must be feeling.” That’s a good empathic statement. Empathy is also about feelings, but it is static, feeling with your child. Active listening is a more interactive, more…active style of listening.
Mom hears her daughter come home from school. Even from afar, she thinks, “Uh oh, something’s up.” She puts her kitchen chores aside and climbs the stairs to Allison’s bedroom, stopping at the open door to knock.
“What do you want?” Allison spits out.
“Wow! Honey, whatever it is, I’m so sorry you are having to deal with it. What’s going on?”
“Leave me alone.”
Mom approaches, sits beside her daughter on the bed, and gives her a side hug. Allison breaks down in tears and folds into her mama’s arms.
Active listening is both trying out feeling words and also physical interaction. It’s about relationship, not about power. You have the authority to talk to your child any way you choose. Choose active listening when you notice signs of their emotional fever.