I’ve shared with you how active listening is your go-to response when your child has an emotional fever. This is the proverbial “You feel…” comment, where you give your child what you think she is feeling at the moment. However, to engage your daughter, dare to be different. That is, be creative in how you empathize. Also, to help her know how important her feelings are to you, expand your responses.
Allison comes running in from outside, where she was talking to her friend, Jennifer. Allison slams the door and stomps into the kitchen, where you are cleaning up. “Jennifer says I’m dumb and she won’t play with me.” You gather her up in your arms and she sobs into your shoulder.
An active listening response might be, “You feel hurt.” Daring to be different, you could expand that with, “Aw, baby, it hurts when Jennifer says mean things to you.” Allison will then hug you closer.
Another tool in your response toolbox is called passive listening. Yep, you guessed it. This is simply being quiet and letting Allison just be or just talk. A verbal prompt that could help her share her feelings is called a noncommittal response. Us shrinks call this the therapeutic grunt, such as, “uh huh, hmmm, I see” This tells Allison that you are listening and encouraging her to share more.
A third tool for you is parroting. This is when you say back as a question exactly what she just said. “Jennifer says you’re dumb and that she won’t play with you?” Here, you are making sure that you heard right and again prompting her to continue. The fourth tool is paraphrasing. Here you give her content, but not necessarily feelings. “So she’s not playing with you because she thinks your dumb?”
Active listening is the gold standard for helping your child through tough times, but you can also expand your responses with parroting, noncommittal responses, paraphrasing, and just being quietly there with her, that is, passive listening. All of these options keep you engaged with your child in her hurt and let her know how important she is to you, helping her find her way out of her hurt. Expanding your responses helps you stay connected.
In my book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, chapter 1 is titled “Communication Is Relationship.” A corollary to this statement is my belief that you cannot not communicate. Children, teens, parents, families are always communicating with each other, if not verbally, then nonverbally.
Mike’s dad asked him to help him wash the car. He was gaming on his bed in his room early in the afternoon on a beautiful day. Mike looked up from his game toward his father, but with only a blank stare. Was he responding to his dad’s direct request? You betcha. His nonverbal communication either said “I didn’t hear you,” or, “I don’t want to hear you.” His hope, I’m sure, was that dad would just go away.
Bethany’s mom was talking on the phone to one of her friends, when she toddled over to the kitchen counter and began tugging on her mama’s pants leg. Mom shook her leg free and turned in her chair as she continued her phone call. Were mom and daughter communicating? Oh, yeah, however unhelpful their nonverbals were to each other. Bethany was saying with her tug, “Mama, I need some attention.” Mom’s response was, “Go away. Leave me alone. Can’t you see that I’m on the phone? My conversation with my friend is more important than you are right now.”
When your child’s nonverbal communication is vague, indirect, or confusing, help them with a prompt like, “Sweetheart, I’m confused. Can you use your words?” If the behavior is intense or suggests distress, it will trigger your emotional fever alarm and you want to use your active listening skills. “Wow. You really slammed down that book. Are you frustrated?” Once her feelings are acknowledged, she will be more receptive to your correcting her behavior.
We are always communicating, whether it’s verbally, nonverbally, or even both. Teachable moments come from tuning in, decoding, and understanding the underlying feelings.
I’ve talked with you at length about how active listening is the go-to response when your child has an emotional fever. Emotional fevers come in all shapes and sizes. A verbal outburst, defiance, silence, being mean to siblings, exclamations like “not fair!” and the like all indicate feelings that are going on inside your child. If they are not expressed in helpful words, then they will continue to come out in unhelpful behavior. In your active listening response, be creative with your words and dare to be different.
Ten year old Emily comes in from outside and slams the door behind her. Recognizing an active listening moment, you comment, “You feel angry.” “You won’t believe what Alice just said to me.” “You feel surprised.” “Whatever, she’s so mean.” “You feel rejected.” With exasperation, Emily huffs, “Mama, will you get off the ‘you feel’ kick.”
Going through the motions of active listening, with repeatedly leading in with “you feel,” will shortly fall on deaf ears. Emily just knows that mama is trying re-state her feelings, but not trying to be with her in her emotional pain.
Emily comes in from outside and slams the door. “Wow! That was loud. Everything okay dear?” “No, it’s not okay. Alice just called me a freak because I got my hair cut short.” “It sounds like Alice hurt your feelings by calling you names.” Raising her voice, Emily clenches her fists and sobs, “She’s so mean.” Mama gathers her into her arms, stroking her hair, and adds, “Alice and you are best friends. It really makes you sad when she says thoughtless things, and you don’t know what to do.”
By words and actions, mama is being with Emily in her emotional pain. The words are varied responses to what mama sees and hears from Emily. Emily may cry for a short while in her mama’s arm, and then mama will notice her emotional fever going down. Crisis calmed more quickly, and then they can think about problem-solving. Because mama was creative in her words and actions, and she dared to be different, Emily is more willing and able to find a good solution.
Your child is looking downcast and more quiet than usual. Do you continue to focus in on the TV, hoping his phase will go away, or do you address the problem? What to do?
When my daughter was 3 years old, a long time ago, I was talking to a friend in the back yard. She came up to me and pulled on my pant leg. “Daddy, I need some attention.” Not your typical 3 year old, and not the kind of attention-getting behavior our children give us. However your child acts, pay attention to the cues.
Rachel gave me a verbal cue. Most children her age will go with a nonverbal cue, like the downcast look and quiet funk. “Hey, Punkin. What’s going on in that noodle of yours?” This is a good lead-in and gives your child opportunity to make her nonverbal behavior verbal. If they don’t respond, accept that and offer to be available to talk when they are ready. If they do respond, hear them out, use active listening and be empathetic. “So, what I hear you saying is…” “Let me get this straight. You feel…?” When you see their emotional fever drop, suggest, “I have some thoughts about what’s up. Do you want to hear them?”
It’s so powerful when you ask your child’s permission to counsel, regardless of their age. Children feel empowered and are more likely to act on what you have to offer. If you offer wise counsel and they don’t want it right then, it falls on deaf ears. Asking their permission opens up their ears to what you have to say.
Be creative in your problem-solving and active listening. Children love to be outside the box. The core feelings for kids are mad, bad, sad, and glad. That’s all you will get and that’s not much. “You feel put upon, vulnerable, excluded.” Take the core feelings a little further. “You sound thrilled, beside yourself, joyful.” These more expressive feelings may be both on target and also will help your child be more creative in expressing what they feel. Helping your child through a problem? Pay attention and be creative.