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How to Really Listen to Children


By Alyssa Linkletter


“Listening is not the act of hearing the words spoken, it is the art of understanding the meaning behind those words” - Simon Sinek



We all have a deep-seated need to be understood. Truly hearing another person is a form of understanding.


It is a loving act for a parent to really take in what their child is saying. It is loving in the true sense of the word in that it is a verb, something that you actively do. It is engaging in conversation with your child in a way that is respectful of them as individuals. Each interaction can then be a place to grow from. If we want our children to be a positive voice in this world,

we have to make them feel valued and confident. And to see them as they are, as already whole individuals.


We can start practicing listening when kids are as young as possible. No matter what age and size - whether toddler-aged, small, tall, or tangled in the strife of the adolescent stage, there is nothing you can do that is more productive and generous than to listen to them. For a child to feel understood is one of the greatest gifts you can give them as a parent. If your child is older, it is never too late.


As a parent and in all relationships it is integral to listen to what each other is saying - even when we (speaker and listener alike) don’t know how to articulate ourselves clearly. Imperfection is a common aspect of human communication. We’re all imperfect when we speak and choose wrong words at various times!


This can be especially true for younger children who are still developing their emotional vocabulary and may not yet have the language to describe what they are feeling.


While kids are struggling to label their emotions accurately as they are often encountering them for the first time in new experiences, it can leave parents feeling confused and unsure of how to respond.


In her book "Atlas of the Heart," Brené Brown reminds us that children are not alone in struggling to accurately label their emotions and accurately deliver their message.


In surveys taken by 7,000 people over five years, Brown and her team found that on average people can identify only three emotions as they are actually feeling them: happiness, sadness and anger. She emphasizes that there are many more complex emotions that people experience, such as shame, vulnerability, and empathy, that are equally important for personal growth and connection with others.


Throughout life we are constantly having new experiences - and hence new emotions - making us communicate, well, less than optimally.


Parents are no exception to this, with lives that can be filled to the brim. Filled with tasks, obligations, roles, relationships, noise and more noise.


Although it may be an effortful adjustment to make, if you are able to create some space at the beginning or throughout your day - the benefits will ripple out to your children.


By creating space to clear out the noise you’ve been bombarded by throughout the day -

then you have a better chance of being able to hear your children.



How can you create space? A few ideas, such as mindfulness of the breath, walking meditation, mindfully eating, and listening to music, will all be discussed in this blog on Creating Space through Mindfulness Practices.


These practices will help you train your attention in order to strengthen your quality of presence - and to show up in a meaningful way for the people who matter to you the most.


“People quickly sense when we are not present. Our bodies can be there while the soul is absent. I think it is part of our animal nature to make judgments as to the presence of the soul… perhaps with our eyes, ears, smell, and body feelings.” (Shaun McNiff, 1988).


Kids truly pick up whether we are present or not - and not only that!


Kids do what we do, not what we say. It is our actions and not our words that have the most significant impact on their development and behavior. Children are amazing at imitating the behavior and actions of their parents.




We implore you to have fun experimenting through active listening. This is a great way for parents to lean into their childrens’ inherent strength instead of trying to adjust and micromanage their behavior with much often wasted words and instructions! Essentially, our actions speak louder than our words. Through actively listening, we are modeling what positive communication, and good conversation, looks like.


So let’s peel back the layers… What is active listening?


Active listening is an art, in that it creates an emotional experience between people. It is the art of creating an environment in which the other person feels heard - and received. There is a shared emotional atmosphere where a message is delivered and received. The other person in turn feels heard in the true sense, i.e., feeling seen and understood. In order to achieve this, the listener must be willing to devote energy to intently listening. Not only attention is required but also tangible empathy. Active listening has even been referred to as the “measurable dimension of empathy” (Olson & Iwasiw, 1987).


Fortunately for those whom empathy does not come naturally, active listening is a learnable skill and practice. Another great thing about active listening is that only one of the parties needs to learn how to listen! As parents, we can hone this and pass it down to our children. And then, the children can do the same towards us and everyone they engage with in their own lives.


Here are some practical applications for parents to begin active listening with their children. (The Center for Parenting Education, n.d.).

  • Listen to your child - by giving them your undivided attention you are communicating that they are worthy of your attention. Display attentive body language, make eye contact to ensure you are seeing “eye to eye” - and stop other things you are doing. That includes putting your phone away! Allow your child to speak in full, until they are done talking.

  • Hear their distress - this can help affirm the importance of their thoughts and feelings, and that their view of the world has merit. Often we need to set our personal feelings aside - as it may feel uncomfortable to hear certain negative or painful feelings, especially coming from your own children! In hearing their distress, you will help them one is right in their opinions and ideas; your child is entitled to her perception as you are entitled to yours. Importantly, accepting is not the same as agreeing. This is a time to let your children talk without interruptions or judgment, while you listen to what they have to say.


  • Listen for and reflect the message back - Try to understand what your child is saying regardless of their tone. Focus on listening to the message they want to share, and what is at the heart of their message? To ensure you understand, reflect or repeat back what she is saying and what she may be feeling to make sure you understand.


  • Listen for and reflect the message back - Try to understand what your child is saying regardless of their tone. Focus on listening to the message they want to share, and what is at the heart of their message? To ensure you understand, reflect or repeat back what she is saying and what she may be feeling to make sure you understand.


  • Allow your child time to choose their course of action - shows that you trust their reasoning and their ability to solve problems.


  • Leave your own agenda out - Do not enter a conversation with a specific result in mind. Replace this desire with having curiosity. This can lead to you having the opportunity to reflect, and to decide if a response is even needed. It can also lead to asking better questions.

As poet J.D. McClatchy said, “love is the quality of attention we pay to things.”


Because our attention shapes our entire perception and experience of the world, the objects of our attention end up, in a subtle but profound way, shaping who we are!


Consequently, the attention we have in interactions shapes what our relationships become.As parents, the love for our children naturally focuses our attention towards them. Active listening allows this attention to be constructive and to lead to any needed adaptations and adjustments for the communication to become easier.


Through improving our listening, we can better adjust our communication so then our children can understand and receive information shared at their level of development and understanding.


We can do all of this while preserving - and even enhancing the integrity and respect inside of the parent-child relationship.


When communication gets easier and smoother, relationships get better. Practicing active listening does not only benefit our children, it also benefits ourselves. It saves us from a lot of arguments and suffering from misunderstanding and allows us to enjoy an enhanced quality of connection for life with our children.






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