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.
The term, “family” by definition indicates a group of people who are special to each other, make time for each other, and support each other. In a traditional nuclear family, there is an adult couple, mom and dad, and their children, who are siblings to each other. Typically, the adults have authority and are responsible for the care of the family. Such families live together and interact with each other daily, with direction from the adults, helping out, engaging in all kinds of interaction.
Beyond a traditional nuclear family, there are blended families and there is extended family. Lots of combinations with the common factor of “blood relations” and “related by marriage.” In our emerging culture, there are also groups of people who bond together by circumstance and preference and function as a family unit. Typically, these groups are not blood related, and often are all similar in age, with a common bond of identity.
Whether traditional or emerging, it seems unlikely, or even impossible to be alone in a family, but is it?
“Lucas Thomas Johnson,” Mom shouted up the stairs at noon. Luke knew from experience that he was in trouble when his mom called her 15 year old by his full name. “Do you know what time it is? You’ve slept the whole morning away. Come on, boy, get up and get moving.”
Luke grumbled and rolled over in bed. Never a morning person, now that it was summer and school was out, he reveled in staying up late and sleeping late.
Mom climbed the stairs, strode to her son’s bedroom door and rapped on it urgently.
“Maaa, it’s too early,” her son bemoaned. “Leave me alone.”
If Luke believes that he has nothing to get up for, mom has a tough sell to get him up just to keep her company, or because she says so. People, usually teens, are alone in a family either because they want to be, don’t want to face the world, or because they are allowed to be. Such aloneness can, however, be a mood or a symptom. In my book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, I encourage folks to consider their child’s behavior to be a result of a mood if it lingers less than 6 weeks. More than 6 weeks? It might be a symptom.
Choosing to be alone in your family can be a symptom of stress, anxiety, or depression. When a child has completed a huge task, such as a major chore or an assigned school task, paper, or test, he may just want to chill out for a while. When you see this happening, be curious. Use “check-in” communication to touch base. “Hey, bud, everything okay?” If your curiosity is satisfied, give him a reasonable time frame to re-join the family.
If your check-in leads to substantive concern, use your active listening to draw your child out. When his emotional fever subsides, ask permission to share some thoughts with him. It’s then that you can help him manage his stress without holing up.
With depression, activity is an antidote. Help him choose things to do with the family or with his friends. When he says he doesn’t feel like participating, encourage his using what I call “the as-if principle.” That is, when you don’t feel like doing something that, in your heart, you know is helpful for you to do, then act as if you feel like doing it. After you’ve started the activity, it becomes self-reinforcing and you end up doing it, to your benefit.
With anxiety, help him see what is beyond his control and that over which he has control. Help him find strategies to exercise that control. Being alone happens, but in your family, use your bonds to help your child feel supported, loved, and not alone.