Why Listening to Children is Important & how to do it Effectively


Why Listening to Children is Important & how to do it Effectively

We like to think that we are good listeners when it comes to our children, but, are we really listening to what they tell us? Listening is more than just hearing the words our children say. In this blog, we are going to look at the different types of listening there are, and how these can impact your relationship with your child. We will give some helpful tips on how you can improve listening skills for you to better support children in the household. The rest of the blog will then cover what is happening when our children don’t listen to us, and 4 key strategies to help you manage those behaviours.

A dictionary definition of listening is:

Listening is the process of receiving, constructing meaning from, and responding to, spoken and/or non-verbal messages.

Listening effectively is a whole-body experience and is much more than just using your eyes and ears. Active listening uses all of your senses!

Why is it important to listen to your children?

The art of listening starts at the early stages of a child's life, as a baby. During this time you are building the foundations for a loving relationship by attuning to your baby, giving eye contact, and by holding and cuddling your baby. Your baby responds and communicates their discomfort through crying and through this you know when they need a nappy change, they are hungry, or they just want comfort with a cuddle. Their behaviour is their form of communication until their language skills develop.

When you are not around to communicate with, children can feel disconnected and this is when other problems can start to show up like negative feelings, arguments and conflicts in the relationship as they get older.

By listening and creating a loving bond with your child, you are in fact modelling to your child the beginnings of how to have a good relationship. By listening attentively to your child, you encourage children to feel safe enough to share their feelings with you, feel valued, and when we take the time to listen and understand what is happening with our children, we are demonstrating our love for them.

How to develop your listening skills

There are 6 steps to listening carefully, and to ensure you develop listening skills and they are as follows:

  1. Stop what you are doing and provide your child with undivided attention.
  2. Get down to your child’s level, give eye contact and be non-judgmental – don’t minimise or trivialise their issue.
  3. Ignore distractions – read the non-verbal clues. Is your child angry, afraid, and frustrated?
  4. Think about what you have heard – respond to the emotions as well as the words at the right time.
  5. Ask open questions to gain clarity.
  6. Think about what you have heard – reflect back what you have perceived in the interaction to make sure you have heard and made correct meaning.

What are the 5 levels of listening?

Everyone who has children knows the scenario. Your child is telling you something, but you have a million things to do, putting the washing on, tidying the lounge, laying the table, cooking dinner. Whilst doing that you have your to do list running through your head. Your child is talking, but you aren’t really hearing them. You are pretend listening – sound familiar?

There are actually 5 levels of listening:

  1. Ignoring – Not listening to your child at all and you are distracted by anything other than what the child is saying.
  2. Pretend listening – You are distracted and your mind is elsewhere, or perhaps making an assumption you know what the child is going to say and start acting/responding before the child has finished.
  3. Selective listening – You only pay attention to your child as long as they are saying things you like/are interested in. If they talk about other things, you tend to slip back into ignoring or pretend listening.
  4. Attentive (or active listening) – You listen to all the words that are being said and using all of your attention.
  5. Empathic listening – This is the type of listening we should try and aim for. This is when you look beyond the words to the heart and feelings that lie behind the words. Be sure to preserve the dignity of your child and support their self-esteem.

Ask yourself honestly, what type of listening do you find yourself doing the most?

Why do children need you to listen to them?

There are several reasons as to why it is important to listen to your children, and more importantly, WHY they need you to.

  • Listening to your child builds a connection and trust that is the basis of building a loving relationship with you and it is the KEY to effective communication.
  • It is also the bridge between you and your child’s hard wired need to feel a sense of belonging and significance.
  • Belonging is about feeling an emotional connection and safety.
  • Feeling significant is about their sense of autonomy, capability and feeling like they have some control over their lives.

Throughout their childhood all learning is done through modelling, so parents need to model and teach their children how to listen, otherwise messages are easily misunderstood, communication breaks down and both parents and child can get easily frustrated and irritated. If your child sees you only ever using selective listening or pretend listening, they will not learn the importance of being able to listen attentively, or empathetically, and this could impact on future relationships throughout their life. In addition to this, listening helps to create a safe environment for a child to want to cooperate to your request making for a more peaceful and harmonious relationship.

What To Do When Children Don’t Listen

We've already discussed the different types of listening and how these can impact on the relationship we have with our children. We've also looked at the reasons behind why our children don’t always listen to us, and discovered that this can often be because they are looking for our attention. In this next section, we are going to look at what is happening when our children don’t listen to us.

A Broken Bridge

Listening to your child creates a bridge between you. When your children do not listen to you, it is because the bridge is broken. If a child feels controlled, or forced to do something, they will often resist, reject and do the opposite thing you ask. Children can literally feel the break in this connection with you and it can cause them to be very upset, sometimes because they may not be able to verbalise how they are feeling, which can lead to a low self esteem.

Fight or Flight

The break in connection is an inbuilt safety mechanism in our brain – the fight or flight mechanism – in a way, it means we are wired to oppose or run away to avoid pain.

Think about a child being given sweets by a stranger in the park. We tell our children to be wary of strangers and so when approached by a stranger we want them to resist so they will either run away or put up a fight, this will keep them safe. We as parents however, are not strangers, so why do our children resist our requests in the same way?

It is easy to forget that a child does not yet have the internal resources or emotional regulation to modify their behaviour. Their brain is still developing and they will develop behaviour problems just to get your attention and to feel a connection with you. Even negative attention to them is attention – they are just looking for a connection.

How effective is discipline?

Children will be more motivated to the thing that gives them pleasure; their computer game or watching TV for example, rather than doing their homework or coming down for dinner. That is, until you shout at them! When children trigger a reaction such as this, they are communicating to you that they need you to intervene.

At this point, a child needs guidance, but what do parents do?

They discipline their children! But what does discipline really mean?

In the past, and still to some extent today, when people think of discipline, they think of punishment and giving consequences. This behaviour can make a child feel helpless and imprisoned with no choice and obedience tends to be of submission, rather than willingness to cooperate. This can mean that children are not engaged, or fully understand why they are complying other than to ensure something they don’t want to happen, happens. For example “Come and put your shoes on or you can’t play on the tablet later.”

In the past when I have asked children that I have worked with how they felt when they are punished for not complying, these are some of the feelings they have shared:

  •    Hatred and the need for revenge
  •    Unworthy and have self-pity
  •    Shame or guilt
  •    They feel like they don’t deserve it
  •    Argumentative and defiant

We don’t want our children to feel this way, or to carry these feelings with them into adulthood. The latest research tells us that actually this way of disciplining can be counterproductive to learning and emotional growth.

A different way of thinking

Take a minute to think about things like this:

The root word for discipline is disciple and disciple = being a student

Therefore to discipline (should) = to teach!

If we think about what we are currently ‘teaching’ our children when we offer punishment for non-compliance, we are not helping our children understand why they need to comply with our requests. As discussed, we must teach our children by modelling our behaviour to them. In order to change the way our children react to our requests, perhaps we need to first change the negative perceptions we have of discipline. Rather than viewing discipline as punishment, instead view it as an opportunity to teach and create a more positive environment for yourself and your child.

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