Parental Listening & Language

I am not in the business of giving parents who are already stretched thin, more to do or more to feel like they’re failing at. However, I am interested in sharing my knowledge to assist parents and their children, not to DO MORE, but instead empower them with the choice to do things differently and sometimes perhaps even doing less!

For example, as a parent you can strengthen your relationship with your child by using different words when communicating with them. This may sound simple but requires us to actively choose to stop reacting on autopilot (habits which we can be largely unaware of) and engage with our child in a new and different way in the present moment.

Rather than jumping in with our parental wisdom and/or frustrations, we can learn a lot by zipping it (which is much easier said than done)! When we remain silent and actively listen to our children many things can happen:

  • We take the pressure off ourselves to instantly respond to our child.
  • We give ourselves time (sometimes one breath is all we need), which allows us space to make a choice about whether to react based on habit or try a different approach that may serve our child and ourselves better.
  • We get a chance to turn down the volume on what’s pushing our buttons and choose to manage our own emotions before responding to our child.
  • It gives us a chance to see and hear our child in the present moment, openly gather information to increase our understanding and empathy.
  • Our child experiences us as seeing and hearing them and overall feels more accepted and worthwhile.

Listening to our children is important from birth: watching our babies cues and working out their different cries, reading our toddlers sign language or deciphering their words (that no-one else would understand), listening to our children and teenager’s words (or grunts) in the context of their individual personalities and circumstances.

The next point applies to not only our children but also to ourselves: LOWER YOUR EXPECTATIONS! We all have basic needs such as being fed and rested. Children (and most adults) cannot engage in a meaningful way with others if they are hungry or exhausted, so do your best to regularly feed them and assist them to get enough sleep (easier said than done I know). Then we need to be aware of our children’s development and match what we expect from them with what they are actually capable of. An understandable and common want for parents is for their toddler to spontaneously share, which sets the toddler up to fail as they are developmentally unable to do this on their own, but rather need support with this complex social skill. Another common belief we hold as parents is that if a child is capable of a certain behaviour they will consistently behave this way – I am capable of acting rationally and calmly but I most certainly do not behave this way consistently! Children will develop new skills but they take time to consistently master them, and even then, if they are under stress they will not always be able to access them (just like us). We can offer our children the gift of compassion by moving away from pressuring them to reach our expectations towards accepting them for who they are.

Rather than shutting down our children’s expression of big emotions, especially negative ones, we can choose to ‘be with’ them in their feelings. Our children do not benefit from us dissolving alongside them – which results in both parent and child ending up in the bottom of an emotional hole. Nor do they benefit from us instructing them to pull their socks up and get on with things – denying the existence of any emotions. They need us to see their pain and validate their experience without judgement, resist your need to ‘fix’ things for them and sit alongside them while they process their negative feelings.

As a parent I can feel worn down by the constant nagging and repetition of statements that start with “No…” and “Don’t …..”. I’m under no illusion that the nagging will stop but if we can choose to make statements that focus on the behaviour we would like to see, at least our children are hearing more positively worded phrases which include hints on what to do versus what not to do. For example, swapping:

  • “stop jumping on the couch” with “couches are for sitting on”
  • “don’t throw the ball at your brother’s head” with “throw the ball to mum”
  • “No more lollies” with “If you’re hungry, have some fruit”

Parents can also help their children to make better choices by providing simple explanations of why they would benefit from them. For example:

  • “If you break the couch we’ll have to buy a new one which you will be contributing to and there will be less money to buy your birthday presents with”
  • “because your brother is too little he may get hurt, but mum would like to play with you”
  • “If you eat too many lollies your teeth and body will get sick”

Listening more (saying nothing) along with saying things differently can strengthen your relationship with your child. Taking notice and supporting our children with their thoughts and feelings takes practice and patience. Undoubtedly, in the heat of many parenting moments we will slip back into our old reactive ways – and that is ok. Remembering we need to lower the expectations we set for of ourselves along with those we hold for our children.

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