When you are really listening and trying to understand your children it is important to guard against some of the things that seem to come naturally when you are trying to help. Often when our children express their fears, hurts, and anger, we rush in to “fix things”…
It is important to remember your children’s intention here on earth is to experience and learn. Situations of conflict or negative emotions are a necessary part of the learning process.
Parents need to fight the urge to fix and solve challenges their children face and see these experiences as opportunities for them to learn and grow. Guiding them through these times rather than making choices for them to alleviate anything that is negative or uncomfortable will help them become stronger and more confident.
What your children need most during challenging times is to know they have a support system that is there for them. Allowing your children to work through tough situations will send the message that you believe in them, you trust their capabilities, and that you honor their judgment.
The following are the three top areas to guard against…
#1. Giving advice…
When you give advice it can feel to your child like you have taken over the problem and that they must do what you say. When you listen and help your children sort through their thoughts and feelings…and help them look at options, you empower them.
There is nothing that is more bonding or that builds deeper trust than listening to something that is important to them without judgment and without offering advice.
I remember working with a teen-age girl and her parents who were struggling in their relationship. The parents saw changes in their daughter that concerned them. They described it as “She has taken on a negative attitude towards things that used to be so important to her.” Their daughter’s response was “I feel like quitting school and everything else. I just don’t care about anything anymore.”
Through our meetings it became obvious she was suffering from overwhelm. She was President of the Junior Class, taking all honors classes, trying to get a college scholarship and needed all A’s, was a cheerleader with practice every day, was Prom chairman, had a steady boyfriend who wanted to be with her all the time, and girlfriends who also wanted her time.
It would have been easy to advise her to cut down on some of the things she had taken on, but that would not have really helped. In fact, when you give someone advice they generally give you a thousand and one reasons why what you are suggesting is not going to work, or if they take your advice and it doesn’t work they blame you, and then go right back to their old pattern.
Instead, what I did was a lot of listening, and then facilitated a problem solving process in which she came up with the main ideas about what she could do and how she could do it.
During the process, when we were writing things down, I also offered some ideas, but out of that, she was the one who decided what would work for her. She took ownership and I supported her.
Often when people ask our advice, what they really need is our support…and in the case of our children…sometimes our guidance as we lead them through the decision making process where they tap into their own wisdom.
#2. Offering reassurance instead of listening…
We often reassure because we care and are uncomfortable with our child’s pain or discomfort. But when your child is worried about failing a test or not being chosen for the baseball team, to say to them “Oh don’t worry, you’ll do fine,” does not make the worry go away. In fact it sometimes intensifies it because they feel like their feelings are being disregarded or discounted. They are worried! They are nervous! You telling them not to be will not make that go away.
When you do that before you really listen to their feelings there is a danger that they will feel alone and not understood.
I was very fortunate growing up having parents who were good listeners. I talked to my parents about everything. I remember being shocked when I suggested to my best friend that she should talk to her parents about the fact that she was worrying and feeling stressed about getting accepted to the college she had applied to and she said, “No, they always just tell me everything will be okay and that never helps!”
#3. And the most harmful thing is to judge or moralize…
Our intention may be the best…we want them to learn…we want them to do better… “If you’d studied harder instead of watching TV…” “If you’d practiced more instead of goofing off…”
What you say may be true, but if your goal is to establish closeness and trust and to empower your child, that is not the approach to take. There is a great chance that it will have the opposite effect.
Never, under any circumstance, judge your child’s feelings.
It shuts them down
It creates distance between you
It makes them feel guilty
It lowers their self-esteem
It reduces the chance that they will share with you things that are important to them
It dis-empowers them
Accepting their feelings does not mean that you agree with or like their feelings…simply that you respect their feelings as valid and love and accept them as they are. When your children are facing struggles or challenges the most effective and helpful thing you can do is to play the role of facilitator…rather than teacher. It will strengthen your relationship, build trust and increase their level of self-esteem.