By Larissa Dann
My Child Seems Unhappy
Just like parents, children sometimes experience difficulties in their lives. Somehow, your child’s needs are not being met, and he or she may experience many different feelings. They may feel: frustrated, angry, hurt, threatened, defeated, sad, frightened, embarrassed, defensive or disappointed.
The children aren’t doing this to “get at” you, or to be “naughty”. Something is going wrong in their life, and this is their way of expressing their upset.
What Can I Do?
One of the best ways you can help your child is to listen to him. Active listening is a special, and very effective, way of listening to your child. Using this technique helps parents help their children, without taking over.
How Do I ‘Actively Listen’?
There are three parts to active listening:
1. Try to work out what your child is feeling
Your child may not know what she is feeling. Your job is to help her understand and name her feelings, from what you can detect in her tone of voice, her manner, and what she is saying. This is the most important part of active listening.
2. Use the facts your child has given you
What is the child telling you about the situation as they see it? What is their perception of the facts of their story?
3. Combine the feelings and the facts in a “You statement”.
State what your child’s actions tell you they’re feeling, including some of the situation: “You…(feeling word)…because ……………”
An active listening response might be: “You really don’t want me to change your nappy”; or. “You seem frustrated, because you’d just like to keep playing”
An active listening response might be: “You’re scared when you wake up and it’s dark”; or “You seem confused – when you went to sleep, you were in Mummy and Daddy’s bed. Now you’re in your bed”
An active listening response might be: “ Seems like you had a pretty bad day today”; or “You’re looking pretty frustrated and upset.”
An active listening response might be: “Looks like that knee is really hurting you!!”
When Can I Use Active Listening?
Active listening is useful when:
Warning – do not actively listen too long to your children when they are angry with you. They may begin to feel as though you are just deflecting their point of view.
Is There Anything I Should Avoid When I Know My Child is Unhappy?
When you detect that your child is not happy, there are some ways of talking that should be avoided. These are called “roadblocks”, because they can block effective communication. Below is an outline of these ineffective responses. It might be useful to think about the way you feel when any of these responses are used on you, when you talk about a problem.
Solutions include giving advice, lecturing, ordering, threatening, and moralising. If we give any of these responses to our children when they are unhappy, they are very likely to “turn off”, and to stop talking. It’s as though we’re telling them that we don’t trust them to be able to help themselves. Telling children OUR solutions to THEIR problems can be disempowering.
This is when we criticise, use put-downs, call children names (such as “idiot” or “cry-baby”), blame them or ridicule them. Children will not feel good about themselves – and they won’t think much of us, either.
When we reassure, console, sympathise or agree, we may (unintentionally) be denying the child’s feelings and experience. For example, if a child fell down, scraped her knee and began to cry, a parent may say, “Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt much, you’ll get better soon”. In fact, the child’s knee IS hurting, and she may feel confused and misunderstood. We have discounted her experience. Active listening - “your knee really hurts” - can actually soothe the pain, and stop the tears.
When we ask questions, we can stop children talking. It may seem like we are gathering data, so that we can solve things for them (this is disempowering for the child). Questions can divert the child from their real problem, whereas active listening goes with the child, and does not lead. If you ask a question, ask yourself “why do I want to know? Is it to meet my needs, or that of my child?” Often, we ask questions because WE want to know, not because it is best for the child.
We may use tactics like humour, sarcasm, distraction, withdrawing, or changing the subject, in order to divert the child, or avoid discussing the child’s issue. The child may then feel that we regard his problem as unimportant, or that the parent does not care.
Why Use Active Listening With My Children?
Parents and children find that when they use active listening, benefits such as these occur: