Many years ago, my 8 year old daughter was acting out and I sent her to her room. I don’t remember the details. Sometime later I was doing laundry in the basement. I had not processed Rachel’s time-out with her and she had not been let out of her room. Nonetheless, she made her way down to where I was doing laundry. Silently, she floated a paper airplane from the doorway to me, and then ran quickly back upstairs. There were markings on the plane, so I unfolded it. Rachel had written, “I hate you.”
Wow! I was crestfallen, heartbroken, and stunned. I finished my load of laundry, giving me time to think about how to handle this. I went upstairs to her room. She was pretending to be asleep on her bed. I went to her side, placed the airplane on the bed and said, “You dropped this.” I started to leave her room, but Rachel bounded out of her bed, sobbing, and ran to hug me.
“Daddy, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I was mad. Please forgive me.”
I folded her into my arms for a big hug and walked her back to her bed. We talked and worked it all out.
Looking back, apparently, I had sent my little girl to her room without adequate active listening and context. She felt unheard and schemed to float her feelings to me on the paper airplane to get my attention. It worked!
As we talked afterwards in her room, she recounted her perspective. I said, “I understand your anger, but what else were you feeling?”
Anger is funny like that. About 98% of the time, anger is secondary to a more primary feeling. Because anger is the most socially accepted negative feeling we have, we use it to cover unheard, frustrated, embarrassed, guilty, worried, and a host of other feelings. Only about 2% of the time is anger the primary feeling. Another way to tag it would be “righteous indignation.” We’re mad because something is just not right. Think a young mother yelling at her toddler in the grocery story because he’s grabbing at things. Think any instance of child neglect, abuse, abandonment. Mostly, righteous indignation occurs when there is a power differential and the victim is helpless.
So, I active listened, validating Rachel’s anger, but asking also, “what else are you feeling?” During the course of our talk, I saw her emotional fever going down. She then could accept my parenting perspective in correcting her behavior, and I helped her talk about ways she could avoid future such difficulties.
For a relationship-building teachable moment with your child, acknowledge her anger, but then find the primary feelings behind the anger by asking, “What else is going on?”
Robert came crashing through the kitchen door and ran through to the family room, where his mom was watching TV while folding laundry.
“Mama, can I go with Adam to the skateboard park? A bunch of us are meeting up there.”
Jodie stopped her folding, paused, and said, “Nope.”
“What? Why not? We won’t be gone long. Adam’s mom can take us. Pleeease,” he begged.
“Robert, I don’t like Adam, and his mom has a sketchy past before she was married. Find someone else to play with.”
“Aww, man, you never let me do anything,” Robert groused before turning on his heel and slamming the door as he stomped outside.
Good parenting is about making good choices. Jodie’s choice was hers to make, but was it a good one? an informed one? Likely not. Had she met Adam? Had she talked to his mom recently? Robert was basically a good kid, good grades, no outstanding warrants (lol). So why did she shut his request down?
Obviously, Jodie was trying to protect her son from possible harm, but at what cost? She’ll likely get the silent treatment from her son for a while. Jodie chose power over relationship with Robert, at least this time.
Kids often try to unconsciously manipulate their parents by coming up with urgent requests at the last moment. Jodie’s first bad choice was responding directly to her son’s request at all. She would have promoted a teachable moment and gotten more information on which to respond by saying something like, “Hold on, son. Take a breath. Give me some details so I can make a good decision.”
She then could have guided Adam through rational decision-making, where he might change his behavior or at least be more informed about the request he was making. Jodie’s not liking Adam at all is really not a part of the equation. Friendships are a human right, not a parental right. Choosing your child’s friends can lead to emotional distance from your child and subterfuge, where he ends up going behind your back. Helping your child make wise decisions, and then being there to catch him if/when he falls, is effective parenting.
My daughter had such a friendship dilemma when she was a teen. After our talking through her needs and feelings about this girl, I told her that she could have a positive influence over her friend, but, the friend could have a negative influence over her. Rachel tested the waters, but the friendship was short-lived.
Can you choose your child’s friends? No, not without risk you your relationship with your child. You can influence his choices by active listening and giving him wise counsel. The end result is a teachable moment from which you both benefit.
When my daughter was a preschooler, she did something mean to her brother, I don’t remember what. Anyway, I sent her to her room as a consequence. She stomped off, got to her bedroom doorway and turned on her heels. She folded her arms and stated emphatically, “You’re the one who is mean. I don’t love you anymore.” She then slammed her bedroom door as I started to come toward her.
Her actions presented me with a crossroads in our relationship. I could show her who’s the boss in my house. I could give her empathy. I could active listen. How I responded set the tone for the emotional intimacy of our father/daughter relationship.
If I wanted to make sure she knew I was the boss of her, I would say such things as, “Get rid of the attitude, young lady.” “Keep it up and you’ll be grounded twice as long.” “How dare you talk to me that way! Come here, and I’ll give you something to cry about.”
Such shaming, power plays, and threats secure my status as the boss, but at the risk of any meaningful relationship with my daughter. The result is her fearing me, shutting me out, and learning that feelings are bad to have.
If I wanted to give her empathy, I could have opened her slammed door and stood in the doorway, pausing to gather my thoughts. I might say, “Being punished is not fun, huh?” “Boy, you sure told me.” “I see. When you feel hurt, you want to hurt back.”
Empathy is a step in the right direction. It’s about trying to live in the other’s shoes for a moment, trying to understand where they are coming from. However, empathy is more about linking feelings and behavior, conveying “I get what you are thinking and feeling.”
Active listening, however, is the gold standard of emotionally intimate relationships. When I active listen, I am choosing relationship over power. My goal is helping my daughter lower her emotional fever, recognizing that her harsh words are only symptoms, not the problem. I could say such things as, “Wow, you’re really upset right now.” “You think I’m being unfair?” Empathy and active listening are cousins in the effective communication world, but empathy is likely to be more passive. Active listening is more engaging and, well, active.
As parents, we want our children to feel better, but sometimes it’s best to just let them sit with their feelings, explore them, have them in the moment. This is where mindful parenting and active listening intersect. When their emotional fever is high and there is a problem, be careful not to judge, criticize, or solve their problem for them. Just be with them, which is empathy, and help them understand their feelings, which is active listening.
We all breathe, just to stay alive. Few of us know how we breathe. Fewer still have had the panicky feeling of not being able to catch your breath. In healthy families, active listening is like a needed breath of fresh air in your relationship with your child. Be there for your kids.