Forgive me the clicky headline, but this is important. I’ll confess upfront that two words are probably not all you need to raise well-adjusted kids. You also need bucket loads of patience and a Teflon-like ego. Even well-adjusted kids are a handful.
However, there absolutely exists two words that will make a ton of difference to your relationship with your children. And a ton of difference to the parent-child relationship can make all the difference to how a kid feels about themselves.
If you say these words regularly and with feeling, they could well change your entire relationship dynamic.
It’s pretty simple, as these things so often are. The two words you need to say the most as a parent are:
This simple, everyday phrase says so much.
Firstly, it says, I think what you have to say is important.
Then it says, I am giving you my complete focus.
And it also says, I value your experiences and opinions.
A parent who listens helps kids grow
‘I’m listening’ is the antidote to all the ‘should have’, ‘could have’, ‘would you’s that our relationship with our children deals with on a daily basis. It allows us to step back and let our kids take the wheel for a change.
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It might be a funny story that happened at school that day – listening means your child takes the floor and you’re both rewarded with a shared laugh.
It might be a problem they are facing – listening means they feel confident to relax and open up. Having an actively listening parent means they practise expressing themselves without feeling judged.
It might be a dilemma they are wrestling with – listening helps our children figure out their true POV, without having to meet the expectations of others.
Listening is harder than it sounds
Listening to our children can actually be super-hard for a parent to do. Often our need to ‘fix’ things means we leap to the rescue, rather than step back and listen. Sometimes we don’t like what they have to say, and our discomfort means we shut out our kids’ words.
Listening helps our children figure out their true POV, without having to meet the expectations of others.
Once you become aware of it, you might be surprised to find how often you don’t listen when your kids talk. We are a distracted, busy generation and making space to hear our children out can be hard.
However, if we make it a priority to create space in our days for our children to open up, our relationship, and our children, will flourish.
How to actively listen
Of course, it only works if we actually devote our full attention to our child. It’s important to make space for them to relax enough to open up and tell us what’s on their mind. If it’s not a ‘good time’ for listening, let your child know and set a time (not too far away) that would suit you both better.
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Agree privacy upfront
Depending on the conversation, make sure you both agree what is private and what isn’t upfront. For me, all conversations with my children are private unless they ask me to talk to someone else about it. We’ve agreed that the only time I would ever breach that privacy is if I thought a person (eg. a friend they mention) was at risk or in danger.
Value the pause
If your child hesitates or is taking time to express themselves, don’t immediately jump in. Show them with your body language that you are still attentive, and give them time. Staying quiet and patient shows them that they are free to talk in their own time.
You might think you already know what your child is going to say, but sit back. Don’t anticipate your response, or jump ahead of their story. Instead, focus on what they are actually saying. Note their expression, body language, the cadence of their voice.
Provide non-verbal feedback
Let them know you are attentive by leaning forward, holding eye contact, and nodding slightly. Keep your face open and your body relaxed.
They may not actually want to hear your opinion, so check before you give it.
Encourage their feelings
Once they have finished and they have invited you to talk, express empathy towards their point of view. You might say something like, “I’ve never felt that way myself, but I can understand how this is hard for you.”
Confirm they want your opinion
By telling you about something, your child may be seeking your advice, or they may simply want you to know about something. They may not actually want to hear your opinion, so check before you give it. This one is really important because often kids just want to ‘check in’ and tell you something, but they’re okay sorting it out for themselves.
Flip it back
Even if they are seeking your advice, it’s a good idea to flip it back to them first. “What do you think should happen next? Why do you think that’s going on?, etc” This is great critical thinking and problem solving practise. You can then offer your POV after they have offered theirs.
Ask open-ended questions
As they begin to tease out their thoughts, encourage them to keep exploring by asking open-ended questions. These are questions that can’t be answered with just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. “What happened next?”, “What did you think of X?” “Would you change Y if you could?”, etc.