More Help From Active Listening—the Essential Skill for Parents

Everyone knows that all children encounter lots of problems in their lives, some children more than others.  By problems, I mean situations in which a child is having difficulty getting his or her needs met or situations on which the child is experiencing discomfort or pain.

Most parents make the serious mistake of thinking that it is their responsibility to solve their children’s problems.  So they jump right in as soon as they discover the problem, and start thinking up solutions to give the child.  I call that “taking over ownership” of the child’s problem as opposed to letting the child own the problem himself.

Here are some examples.  A child says “I’m hungry,” and his mother jumps in and says, “Why don’t you fix yourself a peanut butter sandwich.” A child comes into the house crying and says, “Maddie won’t ever do what I want to do, so we got in a fight and she went home, and the parent jumps in with solution, “Now you go over to her home and tell her you’re sorry.  “A child complains about having a teacher who is always making kids stay after school, and the parent says, “Don’t act up or misbehave and she’ll never keep you after school.”

Now, if parents would only stop and think about it, most of them would see the advantages of having children who learn to solve their problems on their own – children who, over the years, take more and more responsibility for finding their own solutions to problems they encounter.  For certain, most parents would like to see their children become less and less dependent on their parents, more and more capable of successfully solving their own problems.

Now, you might be thinking that as a parent you can’t just walk away when your child is hurting or feeling troubled.  Let me assure you I am not advocating neglecting, ignoring, or abandoning a child in trouble.

I am suggesting, however, that there is a way, of being a helpful, supportive and giving parents without taking over and trying to solve the child’s problems for him.

There is an alternative to either abandoning a troubled child, which nobody wants to do, or keeping the child dependent and helpless, which nobody wants to do either.

The alternative is being a “facilitator” for your child, a role that will require you to avoid the temptation to take over your child’s problem.  Instead you try to facilitate the child’s own problem-solving process.  In plain language, you help your child come up with a good solution to his or her problem.  This way you are being a helper but not in the way we usually think of being a helper, which is being a solution-giver.

Let me illustrate some problems obviously owned by the child.  A high school junior comes home and blurts out, “I hate school.  I can’t do my homework; I’m not interested in any subjects; it’s a total waste of time. It’s certainly not relevant to my life.” This is a problem that the child owns, because hating school doesn’t tangibly or concretely affect the parent.  If it were my child, I wouldn’t be worried about losing my job or my friends.  His problem doesn’t touch my life in any direct or tangible way.  It’s really a problem he is encountering in his own life independent of me.  Another example:  A child comes home and says, “I don’t have anybody to play with.” A teenager complains, “No one is asking me out.’ All my girlfriends have dates, but I don’t.  It’s because I’m too fat.” A teenager is worried about his complexion.  Your child falls down and scrapes his knee, and says, “Oh, my knee hurts so bad.” The child owns all these problems.  They are outside the life of the parent.  A particular set of skills is required to help children when they own the problem.  Call these helping skills or facilitative skills or counseling skills.  Your posture is that of a sounding board, a listener, a facilitator.  You want to get the child talking; you want him to get his feelings out, and you want to help him begin to problem-solve.

To accomplish these goals, you’ll need to learn a technique called Active Listening.  This is the identical technique that successful professional counselors use in helping other people who come to them with their problems.  Parents can learn this skill pretty quickly and begin to use it right away in the home.

active listening parenting communication skillI will give you a quick illustration of Active Listening.  Remember the youngster who said, “I hate school.  I can’t do any homework.  I’m not interested in any subjects; it’s not relevant and it’s boring.” You would be using Active Listening if you responded by mirroring back (or reflecting back) in your own words what the youngster was feeling.  No more, no less.  “Jimmy, it sounds to me like you’re really fed up with school.  You just don’t feel it’s very relevant to your life, so it’s terribly boring for you, and you can’t study or find anything that interests you.” And he’s say undoubtedly, something like, “Yeah, that’s right.  You understood me.”

This kind of mirroring back to the child, you’ll discover, is a powerful communication technique.  But it will take some time and a lot of practice before you  feel you’re doing it effectively.  If you’re like most people, you’ll find it difficult just to listen when your child has a problem.  Your tendency will be to jump in very quickly with your solutions or to ask questions or to tell how you handled the problem when you were a kid.  Or you may be in the habit of asking a lot of questions – who, what, where, when, why.  Another tendency of most parents is to be reassuring and encouraging: “You’ll feel better next year,” “You’ll make new friends in junior high,” “Other people have felt this way and gotten over it.”

Think of Active Listening as silent listening (where you obviously communicate no messages out of your head to the child) plus reflecting back the message the child sent out of his head.

Here are some other examples of a parent reflecting back (we often call if “feeding back”) the message of a troubled child:

1. Child: (crying): Nathan took my truck away from me.

Parent: You sure feel bad about that – you don’t like it when he does that.

Child: Yeah.

2. Child: I don’t have anyone to play with since Kyle’s not here—he’s on some stupid vacation with mom and dad. I don’t have anything fun to do.

Parent: You miss having Kyle to play with and you’re wondering what you might do to have some fun.

Child: Yeah.  I can’t think of anything.

3. Child: Boy, do I have a stupid teacher this year.  I don’t like her.  She’s super mean.

Parent: Sounds like you are really disappointed with your teacher.

Child: I am.

4. Child: Daddy, when you were a boy what kind of girls did you like?  What did they do that made you like them?

Parent: Sounds like you’re wondering what you need to get boys to like you, is that right?

Child: Yeah.  For some reason they don’t seem to like me and I don’t know why.

These were examples showing just one Active Listening response to help you learn what this communication skill sounds like.

Now let me give you an illustration of a parent using Active Listening for helping a child solve a problem.  In this case the parent used several Active Listening responses over a period of time, which as you will hear, helped the child work through the problem.

One morning at breakfast before she left for junior high school, my daughter asked me a question:

“Daddy, what did you like in girls when you were a boy?”

Like most fathers, I was immediately tempted to take the ball and run with it, once given such a chance to reminisce about my boyhood.  Fortunately, I caught myself and came up with an Active Listening response:

Father: Sounds like you’re wondering what you need in order to get boys to like you, is that right?

Daughter: Yeah.  For some reason they don’t seem to like me and I don’t know why…

Father: You’re puzzled why they don’t seem to like you.

Daughter: Well, I know I don’t talk much.  I’m afraid to talk in front of boys.

Father: You just can’t seem to open up and be relaxed with boys.

Daughter: Yeah.  I’m afraid I’ll say something that will make me look silly to them.

Father: You don’t want them to think you’re silly.

Daughter: Yeah.  So if I’m quiet, I don’t even take that risk.

Father: It seems safer to be quiet.

Daughter: Yes, but that doesn’t get me any place, because now they must think I’m dull.

Father Being quiet doesn’t get you what you want.

Daughter: No. I guess you just have to take a chance.

How I would have muffed the chance to be helpful had I given in to the temptation to tell my daughter about my boyhood preferences in girls!  Thanks to Active Listening, my daughter took a small step forward.  She acquired a new insight, the type that often leads to constructive self-started behavior change.

Learn more about P.E.T