Listening to Our Kids

josh and me

Have you ever eavesdropped on people conversing in a foreign language? Perhaps with a little familiarity with that language, you found yourself picking out words you recognized, and then find yourself surprised by a smattering of English words here and there. Understanding part of what’s being said, you start filling in the gaps, guessing at the subject matter, and the relationship between the speakers. You listen for urgency, and tone of voice, and make some assumptions. Listening to our kids can be a lot like this.

As infants, we hear their coos and reply in kind, but what we come to really understand is their cries, the “I’m hungry”, the “I’m tired”, the “Change me”, and the ever popular “I have no idea what’s wrong but I’m not going to stop”, and somehow we manage to meet their needs and our babies grow into toddlerhood. Their language develops but is more nuance than words, with an understandable word or phrase thrown in among the babble, we do our best to understand them, but mostly we still understand their cries more than any other sound they make and respond to crying faster and with greater accuracy than to their attempts at actual language.

Entering school age years, their grasp of their native tongue allows them to converse freely, and use words to let us know their about their needs. During elementary school years they also really want to talk to their parents. They want to tell us about their day and their accomplishments. Their speech is often long-winded, with frequent detours and dead-ends. Forgetting what they were talking about in the first place happens often to both the child and the parent. And then they become teens. They develop their own, new foreign language. They can be simultaneously verbose and tight-lipped, often speaking in fits and starts. They are secretive, but wish to be understood, argumentative and sensitive, ambivalent and passionate.

When my youngest son was 11, he came home from school a little late, and sat down on the couch looking a bit dazed. I heard him tell me that his arm hurt, and I told him to rest while I continued my evening routine. It wasn’t till the next morning I heard him tell me he’d fallen out of a tree, and we got him to the ER. He still swears that he told us about the fall as soon as he got home, but I have no recollection of it. Mother of the year award was not given to the mom who let her son go to bed with a broken arm that year, but I did realize that I needed to start listening better. We adults have a hard enough time being good listeners to other adults, to people with whom we presumably share a common language, interests, and relationships. ( Listening to children can be a whole ‘nother ball of wax, however meeting the challenge of listening to kids as they grow up is even more important than a speedy diaper change, especially in blended families where children may feel disconnected to one or more parent, and where messages and information slips through the cracks as kids are shuttled between two homes.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, a group formed in the UK in 1884 recommends the following to  improve the way you listen to your young children in their pamphlet, “Listening to Children, Improving Communication with your Child”:  “Respect your child. Remember that your child’s idea of what is important may be very different from yours. Try to remember this when they want to tell you something urgently, even if you are busy. Teens often don’t just open up and want to talk to us, but instead drop hints, and we need to be ready to hear them. Also, when talking with their friends, if they’re within earshot, listening in on them is not invading their privacy, its learning about them, and gaining understanding. What we learn when they’re not speaking directly to us helps us open conversation with them later. And it’s during that conversation that a parent needs to practice their best, respectful listening. But one of the most helpful things you can do is listen and support their feelings. This helps children to learn how to identify, accept and feel comfortable about expressing their feelings. It builds self-belief that they can handle difficult situations.”

None of my sons were great communicators. My oldest two are twins, and shared everything with each other well before they would consider sharing with their parents, and when my younger son was born, already stoic by nature, he was taken into that brotherhood. Getting them to talk to me, to open up and tell me about their day and hopefully about issues that might be bothering them, meant that I had to spend time with them, listening to them talk to each other, talk to them about their favorite super heroes, engage them in conversations and then be ready to hear things that were going on in their lives. From “Supporting Your Children” from “Resolution First for Family Law” Here are some tips:

  • Give children your full attention when they are talking to you. Sit down and make eye-to-eye contact. If you can’t stop what you are doing, let your child know that what they have to say is important and arrange a time when you can give them your undivided attention.
  • Listen to your child without trying to fix, judge, criticize or change their feelings. When children do not have chance to solve their problems or have their feelings acknowledged they are deprived of building self-esteem and self-confidence.
  • Try to understand your child’s feelings and perspective. Consider focusing on what your child is feeling and verbalizing that for them through statements such as “It sounds like you are feeling -”
  • Remember what your children most need is for you to listen, not to solve their problems.
  • Keep your issues separate from your children’s feelings. If it is difficult, take some time to process what is going on and your feelings.
  • When necessary, get help or find professional support.
  • If your child doesn’t want to talk let them know you understand it is hard for them and that when they are ready to talk you will be there to listen.
  • One way to improve your listening skills is to ask simple questions and then just listen. You could ask: How did that make you feel? What did that mean to you? How would you like things to change?

From “Listening to Your Adolescent” in Psychology ‘But,’ protests the busy parent, ‘my teenager picks the most inconvenient times to talk – when I’m really tired or in the middle of a program or have something I have to get done.’ It’s one of the hard realities of parenting adolescents – a good time for them to talk is frequently a bad time for you to listen. However, parents need to understand that the teenager’s readiness to talk in a seriously self-disclosing way depends on happenstance, emotion, and mood coming into some mysterious internal alignment that set the stage for momentary openness to occur — all factors that she doesn’t usually control. ‘I don’t feel like talking now,’ is often not a lame excuse, but a psychologically valid explanation.”

But after following all this advice, are you really ready to listen? A final point I’d like to make is to ask yourself, when your child opens up, are you listening with a quiet and non-judgmental mind? How often do you interrupt your child, or respond to them with a story about yourself. When we do either of these two things, it’s a sign that we are busy thinking about our own self and our own experiences more than we are listening to our kids. Truly listening is not active, in fact, it is a totally passive activity. When we are completely open, when our minds are focused on just our child, we are then ready to hear everything our child is saying. It allows us to become aware of not just their words, but also nuance…their expressions, tone, what they’re doing with their hands as they speak, all things that communicate as much as their words do. Truly listening is a learned behavior. First listen to yourself, and if you find that you interrupt often, or immediately tell a story about yourself when your child is finished talking, you can work on eliminating those behaviors, and then begin quieting your mind. You’ll be amazed at how much more you hear when your mind is quiet, open, and ready to receive what your children are telling you.

Ariana Gruver is a mother (and landlord) of 3 grown sons. Being single after 25 years of marriage seemed pretty awesome, but then Mr. Right walked into her life, bringing with him two little girls. Starting over again, moving from vibrant Portlandia to the soggy Southern Oregon Coast, changing from a full-time career to being a part-time insurance agent, thrice-weekly stepmom, growing blogger, and full-time wife, she is embracing adventure and sharing her experiences and lessons on her blog. Still Growing. You can learn more about her by following her on: Facebook: and her Blog: