Listening: The heart of connecting

Communication is fundamental to relationships, but listening can be more complicated than it seems. Here, Dr Deborah Trengove shares how parents can be effective listeners.

Communication lies at the heart of human relationships, no less between parents and their children. And at the core of communication, is listening, a deceptively simple, everyday activity but one which is harder than it might seem.

Communication between parents and kids serves many purposes. These include giving instructions, teaching new skills, giving feedback and encouragement, and exchanging ideas and information.

Another critical purpose of communication is to understand and connect – this is where listening is so vital. Listening can be superficial or deep. Genuine listening gives us a sense of being cared about but not judged, building trust through the space shared and empathy shown.

The power of listening

When parents really listen to their children and teenagers, they feel heard and understood, not alone. It sends a message of unconditional love and regard, that builds security and attachment in the relationship. At times of challenge, sitting with a child or adolescent to listen, may be the most powerful tool we have in building connections.

Listening says to a child that we care about what they have to say, what they have experienced and what they feel. This does not mean parents cannot set boundaries or maintain expectations, rather that listening gives each child a voice, empowering them to express their needs through language, rather than behaviour.

Listening is also the foundation of teaching the vital life skill of emotion regulation. When we listen to our kids, we give them the opportunity to recognise feelings and develop a vocabulary to name even the most uncomfortable of emotions.

What blocks effective listening?

1. Being distracted – we can’t listen to another person if our mind is elsewhere and focused on something else. If we are distracted, and not ‘present’, we can miss important cues and send a message that the issue and child’s wellbeing is not our priority.
2. Being busy – similarly, effective listening takes time and can’t be rushed. It is not something to get out of the way in a hurry.
3. Being upset or emotional – our own emotional reactions can block us from hearing what is going on for our children, preventing us from tuning into their emotions or needs.
4. Putting our own perspective – empathy is an essential ingredient in effective listening, but we are not listening effectively if we make assumptions that our experience or viewpoint is what the other person is experiencing or needs.
5. Trying to solve the problem too quickly – until we have the story and understand what is being felt, solution-finding can feel dismissive. Sometimes, being heard is all that is needed, but if not, solutions will be more appropriate if they are based on a true understanding, gained through listening.

What enables effective listening?

1. Being open – to whatever the child or teenager’s experience is. While children and teenagers may benefit from suggestions about what is going on, it is important that they have a chance to correct them if they are not quite right.
2. Managing our own emotions – especially if hearing ‘difficult’ things. Young people can become afraid of sharing their feelings or experiences if their parents readily become upset, anxious or angry. Staying calm and focusing on your child’s needs as best you can, will give them the confidence to share their troubles and approach if they need help.
3. Having the time and space to listen – making sure that you are available to listen, not in a hurry and that privacy is protected if necessary.
4. Using openers and encouragers – these are many and varied, according to the age of the child and what language is natural for both of you. Some of the classics below are tried and true, but they need to feel authentic:
• I’ve noticed you look a little sad, is there something worrying you?
• How are you travelling, is everything OK?
• That sounds hard, tell me more.
• I can understand you feeling angry when that happened.
5. Working together to find solutions – once a child or teenager has been heard and feels understood, they are ready to think about what solutions might be helpful. This might involve brainstorming possibilities, seeking further support, or even setting some limits if their behaviour has been inappropriate. In general, encourage your child to have a say, as this empowers them to find solutions for themselves in the future and builds their confidence in the long term.

How to listen if kids won't talk?

Some children are naturally reticent and adolescents can be notoriously difficult to get to open up. Parents may be ‘all ears’ but teenagers can be stubbornly non-communicative.

Here are a few tips:
• Try not to take it personally, it is very common.
• Remember listen is an anagram of silent! Listen more than talk, especially with teenagers.
• Checking in while doing another activity – such as driving or cooking dinner – can take the pressure off.
• Be curious: ask ‘is there anything else?’ or ‘what do I need to know to understand?’
• Resist advice giving unless they are open to it and avoid all comparisons to siblings (or yourself at their age).
• Remember they can’t talk to you if you are not around, so try to hang out in different ways. Read the paper while they are doing homework, ask to hear the music they like, or offer to drive them and their friends to an activity.

About Deborah Trengove

Dr Deborah Trengove is a former school psychologist and school wellbeing leader, and a regular contributor to The Parents Website.

Deborah’s previous articles for The Parents Website include What parents can do about sibling conflict, Team Family: Why we need the family meeting, 10 tips to help your teen out of the Procrastination TrapHow parents can help kids make good friends, and Lessons from lockdown: The good things we’ve discovered.

Stay up to date with our newsletter here