Are You Listening?

I often hear my adolescent clients complain that their parents aren’t listening to them and don’t understand them. This article will discuss common mistakes parents make and how it is a turn-off and hindrance to effective communication with your kids.

I believe that we have basic emotional needs that are universal. We want to feel content, significant, and secure.  Talking is one method of communicating that we use with each other.  We all have our own experiences with our parents and Yes, it does affect us.  If we had parents who yelled or screamed at us and it caused anger, fear, or frustration then we parent our children from that experience and we might model it or we might go the total opposite way and not hold our children accountable.  I know some people believe that parents can be their child’s friend, but I believe it causes discord and an imbalance in the home. We absolutely can and should teach our kids what a healthy friendship looks like and how they can be good friends, but their friends are their peers, and you are their parents. There is a difference.  If you blur the lines, then you will have more power struggles than normal. Children are people and deserve respect and to be listened to, but if they feel they can challenge their parents’ authority frequently and that the rules don’t apply to them then they will have difficulty in a society where rules are and consequences will follow them. Children should not grow up with a sense of entitlement.  Now back to communication.

There is a difference between listening and attending. Here are the key differences.

  • Do you know someone who can look as if they are not listening and they are absorbing everything? (i.e. mothers and their children)
  • Positive attending behaviors usually open communication and encourage free expression.
  • Negative attending behaviors tend to close down communication or inhibit expression.
  • Cultural backgrounds must be considered!

There are four dimensions to attending behavior.

Eye contact, verbal tracking, vocal qualities, and body language. Have you ever been turned off by someone by the tone they use? Of course. Someone talking loudly can come across as aggressive and threatening. Someone soft-spoken can be perceived as weak and soft. These are only perceptions, but you know the expression: Your perception is your reality.  But we can all be and have been wrong at times.

Mothers can be especially good at attending:  Watch a mother with her children at home. How does she know that her children are into something dangerous or destructive without being in the room with them? She can cook, clean, and play with the kids all in the same room. She can use body language to share her dislike of an action a child is doing without opening her mouth. Many of us know about. “the Look.” That is attending with body language and eye contact. If a person folds their arms it can mean they are closed to what is being said, but not always. You must consider the other attending cues as well.  Sometimes crossed arms are a comfort for them, but it can be seen as a sign of disrespect.

Parents will often say how disrespectful their children are to them, but often it reflects their past experiences. Now I am not saying kids can’t be disrespectful. They can and are at times, however many young people get frustrated when they feel judged. Parents answer their own questions without giving their kids a chance to respond. Listening involves silencing some of the time. We all can work on that. One activity I recommend is to set a stopwatch for a minute and look away and think about when you think a minute has passed. Check to see how close you are to the minute. It is too short or too long? We can easily get distracted and don’t mention technology which interrupts thoughts and actions daily. Kids can talk, text, tweet, Tik Tok and play Fortnite all in a ten-minute period but ask them to do a chore and they conveniently forget.

Set time limits for technology for your children. There is a lot of research that the blue light effect disrupts sleep patterns. Two hours of non-technology is suggested for us.

Talking for long periods of time is a turn off for many children. It becomes white noise. They aren’t emotionally equipped to handle long conversations as adults should be. Some Adults. Their brain development continues until age 2,5 and the prefrontal cortex of the brain is the last part to develop. That is the reasoning, thinking part of the brain.  Their emotional center, Amygdala is the part the gets easily triggered and causes them to react impulsively, in anger or fear. Here are some simple tips.

State the issue, listen for a response, set a consequence, and then end. 

State the issue, listen for a response, set a consequence, and then end.  Remember the consequence should match the offense. And be realistic and time-limited.  Be fair. No one wants to be in trouble for an indeterminate amount of time.

Another mistake stopping effective listening is parents picking the wrong times to talk to their children.  If they are upset, tired, hungry, ill, frustrated, or any other negative emotion, it is probably not the best time to engage in a full-on deep conversation. Even when they made a poor choice, and you are angry then you first must calm yourself down so you don’t say something you will regret or that might emotionally damage your child. I often teach parents how to communicate effectively with their kids using the attending skills mentioned above.  Do hold your children accountable for their choices but also provide some mercy and remember no one is perfect.  Parents and kids won’t always agree; however, you do want your children to feel secure and be comfortable talking to you when they need you.  Truthfully, many kids won’t share with their parents for fear of judgment, isolation, or punishment. Yes, they will make mistakes, but so did we as young people. We need to teach them to be accountable and to problem solve.  They need to be able to learn from their experiences and hopefully not hurt other people intentionally. We can’t fix everything for them. We can show them how their choices do affect them and others. They do have feelings as well. Teach them empathy.

Our kids model us.  Like it or not it is true.  Watch a young child and see how they will imitate you or an older sibling. Sometimes it can be funny but other times it is a reality check for us. If we talk with disrespect and our kids hear it, then you can’t be upset if they exhibit that same behavior towards others. You gave them great practice. Change your conversations and watch them change as well over time. If we curse and yell, our kids might do the same when we are not in their presence, or some will challenge us and do it to our face. Why do older children challenge their parents with aggressive behaviors? They probably learned it from interacting with you. Don’t argue in front of the kids. You can have discussions with each other and even ones where you don’t agree. This is healthy, but don’t get escalated in front of the children.  Have family talk times to air concerns and again LISTEN more, talk less. Children want to feel valued and significant.

Work on your attending skills with adults, coworkers, family, and others.  Observe which negative behaviors you exhibit and work to change them.

Some examples are, cutting people off, loud talking, shutting down, facial gestures, repeating the last word someone says, too much head moving, “uh huh”, and other phrases.

Last if you need support reach out to a professional. Counseling and coaching can help identify the areas of attending you need support with. I have faith in you. With time and effort, you can be a great effective communicator for your children and to others.

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