What do you want to hear?
In a recent talk with a group of parents I asked the question, “What do you want to hear from your children?” Answers were: “Thank you.” “Whatever you say, Mom.” “I’d love to clean my room.”
We all laughed. Then I rephrased the question to “What do we want our children to be able to tell us?”
Their answers included: Their real opinions. When they are in trouble. Their angst. When we are wrong about something. What they are excited about and passionate about. Their anxieties. Their relationships with others. When they feel unsafe. What they admire about us. Their reactions to body changes; their body images. Who they are or aren’t.
Some of these things we love to hear about. But many are things that are difficult and painful to hear. There may be information that worries us or frightens us; that makes us angry or sad. Information that makes us feel powerless. Those feelings can be hard for us to deal with in everyday situations. When confronted with them as parent interacting with a child, the challenge is even greater.
I (and I suspect most parents) secretly believed that if I did my job right, my children weren’t going to have problems that I couldn’t fix. I wanted to make things better. I wanted to kiss the sore spot and make the pain go away. It was hard to accept the truth that I couldn’t fix everything. (My children are adults now and it is still hard!)
Unfortunately, that hard truth and that feeling of powerlessness interfered with my ability to listen to those things I wanted my children to be able to tell me. It wasn’t easy, and I messed up a lot, but here are some things that helped me to listen then (and still help me now).
- Giving myself empathy—acknowledging how painful and difficult it is to hear some things.
- Focusing my attention on listening and observing. Letting my child know I am listening—through touch, attentive silence, or short phrases like “I hear you” or “Oh.”
- Accepting disappointment, sadness, fear, grief and other emotions as real, natural and legitimate feelings that don’t need to be brushed aside or gotten over right away.
- Trusting that my child has many strengths, abilities, and resources to cope with challenges.
- Knowing that I have access to resources—people I trust that I can talk to and professional help if needed.
- My religious faith is also a resource.
- Trusting that really listening to someone is valuable.
I can’t fix everything—but I can listen.
Originally published March 5, 2014 on Parenting Success Network