Don’t Use That Active Listening Stuff on Me

Unsuccessful experiences of parents who first try Active Listening often occur because parents use it at inappropriate times. As with any good thing, Active Listening can be overdone. There are times when kids don’t want to talk about their feelings, even to two empathic ears. They may want to live with their feelings for awhile. They may find it too painful at the moment to talk. They may not have the time to enter into a lengthy cathartic session with a parent. Parents should respect the child’s need for privacy in her world of feelings and not try to push her to talk.

No matter how good a door-opener Active Listening is, kids often don’t want to walk through. One mother told how her daughter found a way to tell her when she did not feel like talking: “Knock it off! I know it might help to talk, but I just don’t feel like it now. So, please, not that Active Listening stuff now, Mom.”

Sometimes parents open the door with Active Listening when they lack time to stick around and hear all the feelings bottled up within the child. Such hit-and-run tactics are not only unfair to the child, but hurt the relationship. The child will come to feel her parents do not care enough to hear her out. We tell parents: “Don’t start Active Listening unless you have the time to hear all of the feelings this skill so often releases.”

Some parents have experienced resistance because they used Active Listening when a child needs different help. When a child is legitimately asking for information, for a helping hand, or for some special resource of the parent, she may have no need to talk out or work through something.

Parents sometimes grow so enamored of Active Listening that they employ it when the child does not need to be “drawn out” or encouraged to get in touch with her deeper feelings. It will be obvious how inappropriate Active Listening is in the following theoretical situations:

1. CHILD: Hey, Mom, can you give me a ride downtown Saturday? I want to go to the skate park.
PARENT: You’d like a ride downtown Saturday.

2. CHILD: What time are you and Mom coming home?
PARENT: You are really puzzled as to when we are coming home…?

3. CHILD: How much will I have to pay for insurance if I buy my own car?
PARENT: You’re worried about the cost of your insurance.

These kids probably do not need to be encouraged to communicate more. They are asking for a specific kind of help that is quite different from the help that Active Listening provides. They are not transmitting feelings. They are asking for factual information. To respond to such requests with Active Listening will not only seem strange to the child; it will often produce frustration and irritation. These are times when a direct answer is what is wanted and called for.

Parents also discover that their children become annoyed when the parent continues to try Active Listening long after the child is finished sending messages. Parents need to know when to quit. Generally, clues will be forthcoming from the child—a facial expression, getting up to leave, silence, being fidgety, looking at her phone, and so on—or your kid may say such things as:

“Well, I guess I’m good for now.”
“I don’t have time to talk anymore.”
“I see things kinda different now.”
“Maybe that’s enough for now.”
“I got a lot of studying tonight.”

Wise parents back off when they get these clues or messages, even though it does not seem to them that the particular problem has been solved by the child. As professional therapists know as do our P.E.T. Instructors realize, Active Listening only starts children on the first step of problem-solving—getting the feelings out and the problem defined. Frequently, the children themselves take it from there, eventually winding up with a solution on their own.

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