How to Hear What Your Child Is Really Saying

Reading Between the Lines

Does your child refuse to even come to you when something is bothering him? Children sometimes express their problems as anger or fear, by saying things like “I hate you!” or by avoiding a situation. The Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) class, (created by Dr. Thomas Gordon) teaches that the goal of communicating with children should be to “peel off the layers of anger and fear until you can figure out what they’re really feeling.”

If this describes your child, you’ll need to look at your child’s body language and listen carefully to whatever he says to you. If your child is pushing his pasta around on his plate during dinner, sitting with his shoulders slumped while staring at a wall, and answering all questions with “Yeah, whatever” (assuming that this isn’t your teen’s normal response to any given question, of course!), you’ll know that there’s a problem.

Keep in mind that watching body language and listening carefully to muttered words is important during the conversation process as well, so don’t stop looking out for these hints once you’ve already initiated the conversation.

Mirroring the Emotion

parenting parent training disciplineIf you’ve noticed that your child is unhappy or behaving differently than usual, or if you know something happened in your child’s life that may have upset her, try mirroring the emotion back at her by naming it. For example, you might say gently, “You haven’t eaten a bite of dinner, and your face looks worried about something” or “Losing a game can be frustrating, even when you know you gave it your all.” This will open the door for your child to talk about whatever is bothering her.

Keep in mind, however, that your child may slam the door in your face instead. If your child responds with, “I don’t want to talk about it,” or “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” back off and give her some space. It may take several conversations for your child to feel fully comfortable discussing a problem with you. Express your understanding of your child’s position and your willingness to talk. “No problem. I’m here if you ever need me.”

Active Listening

Using Active Listening (a concept created by Dr. Carl Rogers, popularized by Dr. Gordon) will show your child that you are truly trying to understand where she is coming from. When your child speaks to you, you may find yourself wanting to respond with advice, suggestions, or question after question. Instead, stick to the following guidelines for Active Listening:

  • Do not interrupt. If you need clarity about what your child has said, wait until after he has finished expressing himself.
  • Avoid all distractions, and do nothing else during the conversation whenever possible. Simply stop what you are doing, and listen. If you can’t stop, tell your child a time that you will be able to give her your full attention.
  • P.E.T.  encourages the use of door openers, such as “Tell me more about that.” You can also use noises (e.g., sighs, gasps) or short phrases like “No kidding,” “Really.” or even just “Oh.” These responses will let your child know that you are still listening and interested, rather than making it seem like she is just giving over a monologue.
  • Retain eye contact with your child and make sure that your own body language conveys sympathy, rather than annoyance.

Confirmation Statements

Once your child finishes sharing an experience, expressing a feeling or making a complaint, make sure to confirm the child’s feelings before doing anything else. Confirmation statements sound like this: “So from what you’re telling me, you feel annoyed when your sister takes your things without permission. You think that you should be allowed to have a lock on your door to prevent this from happening again.” This way of speaking assures your child that you have heard what she said and understand how she feels. It also gives her a chance to clarify if you misunderstood part of what she said.

Who Owns the Problem?

In P.E.T. classes, one of the most difficult concepts for parents to accept is the Behavior Window, which is a conceptual window created by Dr. Gordon  to help parents  determine who “owns the problem”.

For example, if a child is getting bad grades in school, it is sometimes hard for parents to realize that that is the child’s problem, not theirs, and needs to be addressed accordingly. On the other hand, if a child wants to stay out late, but the parent has a conflict of needs with such a late curfew, the problem belongs to both of them. If it is the child’s problem, simply Active Listen and encourage the child to talk out the situation. If the problem belongs to both of you, however, you can use the win/win approach to conflicts.

The Win/Win Approach

If your child and you both share the problem, and the issue must be addressed, make sure to present your child’s side of the story first and to present the disagreement as a problem to be solved.

For example, you might say, “You feel that you should have a lock on your door to keep your little sister out. I don’t feel comfortable with any door in our house being locked so that I cannot access it. Let’s think if there’s anything we can do so that we’ll both be satisfied.” Often you may find your child is more willing to come up to a solution to the problem and follow it than to simply follow your way of doing things. For example, the daughter in the above example might suggest a lock that has two keys, one for her and one for her parent.

Why go to all this trouble when you could just give your child advice and be done with it? One reason is that nobody likes being preached to, and most people take ideas to heart much more deeply when they have come up with it themselves. In addition, P.E.T. maintains that “the best way to raise responsible children who make their own decisions is to let them actually make their own decisions!”

Communicating well with your children, and making sure that you truly understand what they are saying, can give your children the strength inside themselves to come up with their own solutions to problems. Harsh discipline or heavy-handedness does the opposite, creating fear and resistance instead. So the next time there is a problem involving your child, try Active Listening. You may be surprised by how much more easily you’ll be able to understand your child.

Learn more about P.E.T