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.
Every school-aged child’s worst nightmare is that of being bullied. Not only are the physical and emotional impacts horrific, but the humiliation and powerlessness are profound. How can you be there for your child who may be a victim of bullying?
“Hey Sweetheart,” Lauren cheerfully greeted her 10 year old daughter as she came in from school, “How was school today?”
“Leave me alone. Nobody cares,” Grace huffed as she stomped by her mom and ran upstairs to her bedroom. Putting her dish towel down, Lauren thought, uh oh, here we go. She trailed her daughter up the stairs.
“Aw, honey, what happened?” Grace burst into tears. Through her sobs she told her mom how Joey cornered her on the playground at recess. When she told him to leave her alone, he pushed her and called her a cuss word and a baby. Lauren active listened Grace’s feelings, hugged her, and helped her calm down.
“Did you tell your teacher about this?”
“Yes, right after recess. She ignored me and told me to get in my seat, that class was about to start.”
I hope you haven’t experienced this scenario with your child. Unfortunately, such is all too common. Even with schools adopting anti-bullying policies, they are often not followed nor enforced. What to do.
First, good for Lauren for giving Grace time to talk it out, to active listen her feelings, without adding her two cents. Calming your child and being there for her are your first priorities.
Second, what’s with the teacher’s response? Clearly she did not take Grace’s words seriously. She was more focused on getting the class back to schoolwork---at Grace’s expense.
Generally, bullies feel bigger and stronger than their victims. They tend to isolate victims from the group and intimidate by words and actions outside of earshot of others. In extreme examples, there might be extortion of lunch money or demanded servitude, like doing the bully’s homework for him.
Male bullies are more often physical, while female bullies are more emotional in their antagonism, although either can be both. And so, more female bullies use the internet to harass and demean others. Such cyberbullying is a negative outcome of our age of technology.
Male or female, physical, emotional, or cyber, all bullies have low self-esteem, feelings of inferiority, and are often victims of bullying themselves in an abusive family setting and feel left out of peer groups. Gang bullies, almost always male, have a primary, a sidekick, and 2-3 hangers on.
As the parents, we are all prone to jump into action to defend our child. Please…take a breath and get all the details, while active listening and helping your child calm down. Children under 10 will probably be relieved that you take them seriously and are going to take care of it for them. Children older than 10 may see your involvement as intruding, potentially further embarrassing for them, and leading to more difficulty for them at school.
Whatever your child’s age, when they are talked out and calmed, simply comment, “You know, sweetheart, I have some ideas about how we can nip this in the bud. Do you want to hear them?” With their consent, add, “If I were to get involved and come to your defense, this is what I would do.” Explain and get feedback, “What do you think?”
When your child is a victim of bullying, brainstorm how they can keep it from happening again. Set boundaries. Stay within your group of friends. Change the context by becoming a positive influence on the bully. Tell teachers and authorities in private settings with a set of commitments from them and subsequent feedback.
With older children, help them develop an effective plan. Note, fighting the bully is probably not a good option because of joint, multiple consequences. When your pre-teen/teen feels empowered and committed to following through on the plan, set a review meeting to de-brief and reinforce positive outcomes. Make sure he knows you have his back if he wants your direct help.
Sometimes dealing with bullying is as hard for you as it is for your child. Use your active listening, joint problem-solving, and relational parenting to help him through his trauma/crisis.
Little five year old Jasmine is building a tower with blocks scattered around her bedroom floor. Mom is cleaning up in the kitchen, pauses, and notices the quiet. She puts her dish towel down and makes her way down the hall to Jazz’s bedroom.
“Hey, Pooh Bear, Whatcha doing?” she inquires. Her daughter gently places another block atop her growing tower.
“See how big my tower’s getting?” Jazz gleamed with pride.
“Uh huh,” mom demurred.
“I’m gonna build it to the sky.”
Mom paused, deciding how to handle the situation. “Sweetheart, I thought I told you to get all your stuffed toys and blocks off the floor before getting to bed. We don’t want you stumping your toe when you get up tomorrow morning.”
“Yeah, but, this is waaay better, don’tcha think? I’m taking the blocks from the floor and building a tower.”
“Okay,” mom scooped Jasmine up and gathered her daughter into her arms. “Time to clean and straighten up and then get to bed.”
“Aww, Mama. Do I hafta?”
As parents, how many times have we heard those soulful words from our kids? This is an everyday household experience that defines your healthy parenting, based on the choices you make.
Some parents respond with “Yes, young lady, you hafta. And I mean right now.” This would be a power-laden, authoritative response that reinforces your ascribed parental control. You’re the parent. You’re the boss. Your child must do what you say…NOW!
Other parents respond with “Well, maybe a few more minutes. Finish your tower while I pick up your other toys in the room.” This would be a permissive, let’s-all-go-along-to-get-along. Avoid conflict or you might scar your child for life.
Between authoritative and permissive is the healthier parental response. The authoritarian parenting style focus on your earned authority with your child, because you make effort to understand her needs and feelings, while making decisions that are in her best interests. This is a relationship-building parenting model.
First, start with active listening Jasmine’s feelings. “Wow. Look at you! You’re so proud of your tower. I know it’s hard for you to put it up for now and get ready for bed.”
“It’s the bestest tower ever.”
“You know, you are right,” Mama scoops up her baby girl to put her in bed. “Let’s keep it where it is so you can continue building it after you get up tomorrow. Time for bed.”
“Aww, Mama, do I hafta?”
“Yes. You hafta.” Time for bed, Pooh Bear.” And the bedtime routine begins without further fussing.
You are always the boss. What you say goes. It’s how you say it that determines whether you are feared or loved by your kids. Use active listening, delegation, cooperation and firm boundaries to build healthy family relationships.
When you feel distant, disconnected from your spouse, partner, or child, consider practicing emotional intimacy. It’s the glue of healthy relationships.
“Go away! Leave me alone,” Brad shouted at his mom, as he slammed his bedroom door. At 14, he was moody, rebellious, distant, and disconnected from the family, mom in particular.
Ellen, Brad’s mom, was a great mom. She made time for her three kids. She was Little League team mom for Andy, her 10 year old. Little Gracie, age 5, was Ellen’s little princess who followed her everywhere. The oldest in her growing up family, she babysat her siblings, got great grades in school, and was recruited to college on a softball scholarship.
Mom made her way to Brad’s door and gently rapped on it. “Sweetheart, it’s your mom,” she softly cooed.
“Duh. Who else would it be?” Brad rebuked.
Mom swallowed and breathed out her urge to nail her son for being disrespectful. “May I please come in?”
Brad’s silence seemed deafening. After waiting patiently for what felt forever, Ellen exhaled with relief when she noticed the bedroom door hesitatingly open.
“Just talk, or listen. Nothing else,” Ellen hesitated before being invited into her son’s bedroom.
Using her best active listening skills, Ellen noticed her son’s emotional fever coming down. She concluded, “Wow. That’s a lot on your plate. Been there, done that.”
Brad perked up, curious as to what his mom meant. Ellen shared with her son that people see her as the star student/athlete from high school and college and the got-it-together mom and community activist now. What her son didn’t know was just how hard middle school had been for her back in the day.
Having his full attention now, Mom launched into her middle school experiences of being bullied, having few friends, and gravitating toward the “emo/grunge” crowd just to fit in by not fitting in. She pulled up a photo that she had transferred to her phone as a reminder, showing her with shoulder length blue/purple/pink hair and flashing a “peace” sign.
Brad’s jaw dropped in response. Having gotten his full attention, Ellen then suggested, “I’ve got some thoughts about your current train wreck of a life. Want to hear them?”
Ellen’s share with her son describes the connect of emotional intimacy. It was deep, personal, and unexpected. I’ve developed a formula to describe the concept of emotional intimacy:
EI = R + V Emotional Intimacy develops by taking Risks and allowing
T yourself to be Vulnerable with another, over Time.
Following this formula allows you to be closer, more credible, and more complete and real with your spouse, partner, or child. Where you see a disconnect in your relationships, share something relevant that you would not ordinarily share. Open up your understanding, with feeling. It will bring you closer together. Emotional intimacy is the glue of healthy relationships.
Why is it that our kids tend to see us as either the good parent or the bad parent? And what does that mean anyway? You know, all kids at one time or another, ask each parent separately, “Which one of us do you like the best?” Or, “Do you love me more than Joey?” Most parents respond some variation of, “I love you all the same.” Really? How does that effect your parenting? Are you the good parent or the bad parent?
Five year old Mandy sulked in her time-out chair in the corner of the kitchen. Mama had put her there after she had thrown a tantrum, stomping her foot and declaring with attitude, “you don’t love me anymore.” All of this because she had gone into the pantry for cookies even though Mama had told her no and was busy making supper.
Mandy’s daddy came into the kitchen, having just gotten home from a hard day at work. Mandy squealed in delight, from her time-out chair, as her daddy pecked her mama on the cheek. Before the parents could talk about the day’s events, Mandy bounded out of her chair toward her daddy, who scooped her up and whirled her around as she giggled.
“Oh no you don’t,” cautioned her mama to her daddy. “Mandy’s in time out for now. She hasn’t talked to me yet about why she’s there, and she can’t get up until she has settled down and we talk about it.”
“But I just got home and haven’t seen my baby girl all day,” her daddy protested. “Can’t Mandy just go back to time-out after we play a bit?”
This scenario is a set-up for daddy to come off as the good parent and mama to be the bad parent. When these roles are consistent and secured, there’s trouble both for the marriage and for the family. As parents, you need to back each other up on matters of discipline. This avoids kids manipulating one parent against the other. You also need to find one-on-one fun time with each of your children, when there is no impending problem. You may connect with one child more than with another, but your time with each needs to be approximately equal. Good or bad parent? Each of you needs to embrace both roles at given times. It’s not an either/or. It’s a both/and. Then the marriage is secure and the children grow up “in the ways of the Lord…” (Proverbs 22:6).
Sometimes we all need a little “me time.” You know, time when you get to yourself and just think, or be, or do something by yourself. I have a little coffee table book that I’ve started using as a part of my morning devotional. Its title is Pausitivity (Compendium Inc, 2011). Pausitivity is “the feeling of joy and optimism that comes when you stop and take a moment to restore and nurture yourself.” There is a quote per page, intended to inspire thought and perspective. For example, “Be still for a moment. The world will wait.” “Lean into the unknown with faith. Make room for new miracles.” In our hectic lives, how important is that?!!
Seventeen year old Casey spends what seems to be all of his time in his bedroom with the door closed. His mom and dad sometimes joke with him about it, occasionally knock and open the door to check on him, but generally leave him alone. Is Casey getting teen “me time?” Should his mom and dad be concerned about how much time he seems to be in his room? Let me give you a resounding, “that depends…”
As in most things, context is essential. First, Casey is 17. That puts him squarely in the space of finding himself, in clinical terms, establishing an individual identity. He’s not going to be just like mom or dad. He’s not going to be just opposite mom or dad. He’s looking for who Casey is, and he needs time and circumstances to take that introspective journey. All teens take this journey. As parents, your concerns are tempered according to your teen’s priorities and activities.
Is Casey is struggling in school, has few friends, or is mixed up with the wrong crowd, and is he making a point of shutting you out of his life? This could be trouble waiting to happen and you have a right to be concerned. Is he gaming online, texting nonstop, shopping, you tubing, or otherwise preoccupied with the internet and social media? This could indicate stalling, hiding, or otherwise nonproductive activity that stunts his personal development.
On the other hand, is he getting good grades in school, is socially engaged, and includes you in his activities or at least does family things together occasionally? You’ve got a keeper there, worthy of your pride, praise, and reinforcement. Is he reading, researching, getting homework done, or tending to a personal hobby or interest? This would indicate personal growth, expansion, exploration and discovery, all of which are kindred to establishing an individual identity.
Teen “me time” can be either part of the problem or part of the solution. In any case, touch base frequently by knocking on his door and entering his room (with permission). If you get a rude or dismissive response, note “Wow. Where did that come from? What’s going on, son?” Then switch to active listening and/or follow up later, when he is more receptive. Also, establish regular family time, like meals together, vacations, and other certain joint interest events. Even though your teen is on a personal journey to establish his individual identity, he is still and will always be part of your family. You still serve an essential advice and consult function on his journey to adulthood. Teachable moments abound.
In this age of social media and much too much screen time, did you know that increased screen time:
Gracie had a dilemma. She was really good at baseball, but, at 8 years old, her options to play were limited. She could play softball with the girls, but she wanted to play baseball with the boys. She wanted the challenge, but…
“What if they tease me because I’m a girl? What if I’m not good enough to make the team? What if I goof up and can’t do it right?” Gracie was so worried about all this stuff that her tummy was in knots.
“Wow!” her daddy exclaimed, “That’s a lot of ‘what ifs’” he took a breath and thought for a moment. “You know, we won’t be able to answer all of these questions until next year if you pass on the tryouts today. I would hate for you to spend all that time without knowing.”
Gracie’s dad chose a teachable moment for his daughter. He could have simply said, “Enough! I paid good money to register you for these tryouts and you’re going.” Yeah, that would have worked. I can just imagine the knots getting bigger in Gracie’s tummy.
Instead, her dad active listened his daughter’s feelings, to help her calm down. When he saw that Gracie’s emotional fever had gone down, he said, “I have some thoughts about how we can handle this situation. Do you want to hear them?” When a parent asks a child for permission to speak, most children are awestruck and gladly agree. In Gracie’s case, she and her dad practiced baseball in the back yard before going to the tryout. Her dad praised her efforts and outcome. He pumped her up for the opportunity to “show her stuff.” Her confidence grew and she took on the challenge.
Generally, when stressed or worried, it’s helpful to start taking slow, deep breaths to help you stay in the moment. When the “what ifs” invade your thinking, convert each one to an “I wonder” statement, followed by a probable positive outcome. Generally, “what if” creates anxiety and worry, while “I wonder” creates curiosity and resolve.
So, in Gracie’s case, “what if I strike out?” becomes, “I wonder how well I will hit the ball.” The embedded positive outcome is, I will hit the ball well. Finally, imagine the outcome you want to happen, in all of its rich and full detail. Write it down or share it with a confidante to make it more real. This picture becomes your reference point as you pursue your goal.
While “what if” equals worry and problems, “I wonder” creates a pathway to helpful activity and success. Helping your child through a difficult situation with active listening and creative, joint problem-solving is the pathway to teachable moments.
Setting healthy boundaries and encouraging good choices help children feel more secure, less anxious, and relieved to not be in charge. In Chapter Three of my book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, I affirm that children will test the limits. This is a developmental imperative. Why do they do this? To be sure that the limits are there.
Lauren sat down with her daughter, Grace, to have breakfast. She fixed herself a bowl of fruit and some eggs for her daughter. As they were chatting about their coming days, Grace pushed her eggs back toward her mom, wrinkled her nose, and concluded, “Yuck. I don’t like these eggs. They’re squishy inside. Can I have cereal instead?”
Her mom dutifully put her eggs in the sink and then got Grace a bowl of cereal. She pushed the cereal around as she talked about the kids at school. “Come on, Gracie,” mom urged, “Your time is running short now. Eat.”
Grace looked at her cereal, and then at her mom’s fruit bowl. “Nah. I think I want your fruit bowl.” She switched her bowl with her mom’s and began devouring the fruit. Lauren rolled her eyes, sighed, and thought, and to think that I went to all that schooling just to do shift work and become a short order cook.
Not much limit-setting here for Lauren, and Grace took advantage of it. Now, mom may be thinking, at least I found what she wanted to eat and she’s having a good breakfast before a long school day. However, the longer goal is also important. Mom needs to work on setting healthy boundaries for Grace and helping her make good choices. If mom is feeling taken advantage of or ignored, then she needs a sit-down with her daughter.
Set a time with relatively few distractions, where you can talk with your daughter. Perhaps after homework and before bedtime. Review the scenario in question and share your feelings with her. Encourage her to help you think of solutions to the problem of Gracie getting a nutritious breakfast without mom feeling taken advantage of.
After discussion, mom and Gracie settled on their going shopping for groceries weekly, or Gracie adding to the shopping list the kinds of breakfasts she would like. Then, each night before bedtime, mom and Grace decide on the next day’s breakfast items. Each goes to bed looking forward to the morning, rather than dreading the back and forth hassle.
Here, the boundary has been set for a good morning routine. The limit is defined as, “no takebacks.” That is, mom serves what Gracie decides the night before and finishes her breakfast before heading out to school. Mom gives Gracie a week of the new routine before reviewing to see how it is working. They could add some rewards and consequences, depending on how Gracie respects the boundaries and accepts the limits.
Most children will start such a discussion with, “No fair. You’re being so mean.” Active listen her feelings, but stay the course. With the limits firm, and boundaries secure, children with go with the flow and feel more secure, less anxious, and involved in a mutual problem-solving relationship and teachable moments with their parents.