Reflective Listening With Your Kids: Why You Need To Keep It Positive
Are you doing the right kind of reflective listening with your kids?
Have you noticed a change in your relationship with your kids recently?
Do you feel more distant, more negative, or like you don’t really know who they are anymore?
Are you wondering what happened to the connection you once had?
If this sounds familiar, chances are you haven’t been practicing reflective listening with your kids.
What Is Reflective Listening?
What is reflective listening?
It’s also known as “active listening”, where you confirm that you understand what the other person is saying or meaning.
And I mean truly understand it – not just superficially understand the words that are being said.
Common examples you may have heard go something like this:
“It sounds like you’re saying XXX – have I understood you?”
“Let me make sure I understand you correctly – you’re saying XXXX”.
And you don’t always have to say those words – but they definitely help.
If you’re not expressing back to the other person, in your own words, what you heard them say, then you can’t confirm that you have a shared understanding.
If you’d like to get some more tips on how to be a better active listener, this article from Hubspot does a great job explaining just how to do that.
A Parent’s Greatest Fear
As a parent, my greatest fear is that my child will not feel comfortable enough to talk openly and honestly with me.
I worry that my two girls will one day become closed off and shut me out.
I’m sure that is a nightmare that many of us parents fear.
Should that happen, should our kids one day decide that they can no longer talk openly with us, then I’m going to say something quite controversial here: we will be to blame.
At least partly (and yes, the bigger part).
The fact is, being a parent is much like being a counsellor or therapist.
Our role as psychotherapists is to connect with our clients and, in the case of parents, our clients are our children.
We hold most of the cards in our relationship with our children, being the adults in the relationship.
We get to decide which cards to play and when.
Do we gracefully play our hand, allowing our child to feel proud that they’ve won and feel confident to play another round?
Or, do we draw out their trump cards so we can crush them and take the game?
I’m going to tell you that crushing your child’s spirit is not the approach you want to take in the fine dance of communicating with your child.
Sadly, though, I see a lot of parents crushing their children with problem-laden talk.
Their children clam up, hold their cards tight to their chest, and lose the friendly banter that happens between two people who are comfortable with one another.
But, that’s not all that happens.
Most Disturbing Trend Of Our Time
According to Dr. Gabor Mate, a Canadian physician and best-selling author of Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Need To Matter More Than Kids, we should work hard to avoid losing the connection with our children – a trend Dr. Mate considers one of the most disturbing of our time.
The reason to fear a lost connection with a child is that children may then turn to their peers for direction – for their values, identity, and behaviour.
And, when a child looks to their peers rather than their parents for guidance, families risk the loss of cohesion. In addition, a child’s healthy development is disrupted and they are left to navigate a hostile and sexualized youth culture on their own.
In full disclosure, I’m guilty of crushing both my daughter’s spirits at times.
All parents are, no matter how many positive parenting blogs you read.
Hopefully, I don’t do it on a daily basis.
But, rest assured, I can be guilty of this kind of soul-numbing, isolating discourse just as much as you.
So, this blog post is as much for me as it is you.
It is a reminder to myself that I – and I alone – am responsible for overloading my child with the spirit-crushing kind of discourse called problem-laden talk.
Shifting The Blame From Client To Therapist
In the field of psychotherapy, not all therapists are a good ‘fit’ for a client.
That happens. A lot. And it’s completely normal.
What isn’t normal is how often therapists blame their clients for the poor fit when the client terminates therapy.
Crazy, isn’t it?
But really, isn’t that a brilliant way to operate?
I’m going to apologize to my colleagues (in the field of psychotherapy) in advance, but I can’t seem to stop myself from pulling back the curtain on our profession.
When it comes to the issue of client/therapist-fit, we (the therapists) need to set our egos aside.
Imagine if you could simply blame a failed relationship on your client instead of yourself.
Who wouldn’t find that an ideal way to protect their professional and personal ego?
I have heard lots of therapists discussing this phenomenon of bad ‘fit,’ and then blaming clients.
It’s often stated that, “That’s the client’s stuff, not yours.”
Or, “They (client) need to do more work on themselves before they’re ready to hear honest, constructive feedback.”
Is that what my colleagues and I should do?
Blame our clients when the fit is bad and they terminate us as their therapists?
If that is the case, should parents do the same with their children?
Take Responsibility As Parents
Should we place the blame on our kids and flatly state that when our ‘fit’ or connection dwindles or deteriorates, that it’s ‘their stuff’ and not ours?
Does our child need to do ‘more work’ on themselves before they are ready to hear honest feedback from us?
I don’t think so.
Isn’t it our job to teach our kids about ‘their stuff’?
Isn’t it our job as parents to help them ‘work’ on themselves so they can properly engage in a relationship with us as their parents?
Of course. It has been our job all along.
Hence, my controversial statement earlier about the fact that, if we notice our relationship with our child heading downhill, we have no one else to blame but ourselves.
You see, when it comes to working with my clients, when the ‘fit’ isn’t right, I see that as MY fault.
Yes, mine. And mine alone.
Point The Finger At Ourselves First
The reason why I point the finger first at myself is that I am the one who has the power to lose the connection – the relationship with the client, if you will.
And how do I go about losing that connection?
Well, it starts with failing to use the appropriate kind of reflective listening.
Yes, even professionally-trained therapists can fall into listening patterns that are less than ideal.
This usually leads to a situation where we start speaking a different language than the client, and the distance between us grows and grows.
We all instinctively know how to use reflective listening techniques.
The challenge comes in using them regularly, and particularly in situations where we are emotionally charged or challenged or otherwise less than 100% objective and calm.
I don’t know about you, but the phrase “emotionally charged or challenged or otherwise less than 100% objective and calm” sure sounds like it was written to describe most parents on most days – including myself!
Here is where solution-focused talk comes into play for me in the therapy room, to help establish or re-establish my connection with the client.
And, here is also where you can hone your own skills and direct your attention towards solution-focused talk in place of problem-laden talk in order to re-connect with your child.
Let’s suppose you’re trying to engage your child in conversation.
I’d be curious to know how much that conversation focuses on your child’s strengths, likes and preferences.
When you engage with your child, are you inviting them to talk about the richness of their lives, including their strengths and resiliencies?
Are you inviting them to be the authors and tell the story of the greatness of them as a person?
Do you engage them in a conversation that redirects their thinking towards a more positive, optimistic view of themselves?
Or, do you help them connect with their faults and shortcomings as we point out their mistakes and misbehaviours?
At this point, please don’t feel like I’m picking on you.
Every parent out there has pointed out mistakes and misbehaviours.
Every. Single. Parent.
Have you ever found yourself asking why your child broke their sister’s favourite toy?
Or, why they left the door of the refrigerator open?
I’m guessing the answer is probably yes.
I know that I have.
Lots of times.
That’s right, I’m guilty of problem-laden talk, too.
(And, in case you’re worried, no, my two-year-old in the image below was not actually sad. She was happily honing her acting skils.)
Don’t Ask Why
I have made the mistake of asking my kids the ‘why’ behind their misbehaviours on many occasions.
It’s as if I think my child has the ability to be self-reflective enough that they would understand their own behaviour.
How I think they could possibly do this, when most adults can’t, I don’t know!
But, I do know I hear phrases like “why would you grab your sister’s toy like that?!” come out of my mouth far too often.
Now, I’ve already pointed out the fault of asking ‘why’ in another post. In that post, I explore why I believe that ‘why’ is unknowable and unanswerable.
But, it is particularly important with children to avoid asking the ‘why’ questions.
Asking why our children misbehave or ignore our commands accomplishes one extraordinarily detrimental task: it connects our child to their personal deficits.
Let me ask you, how do you feel when you are connected to your own personal shortcomings during a conversation with a friend or partner?
That’s right. I thought you would say it feels terrible.
Connect Your Child To Their Strengths
So, rather than trying to ‘solve’ the problems of your child or to understand their mistakes, don’t you think it’s a more sensible use of your time to connect your child to their strengths?
I bet you think so.
And, if you do just that, then you are engaging your child in solution-focused talk.
You’ll also leave behind the problem-laden talk and help them think differently about themselves – help them see themselves in a more positive light.
When you build conversations with your child around their capabilities and resourcefulness, then you offer your child the best hope for building a sense of self that is rich in positive qualities.
You will also build a story of positivity rather than negativity for your child; you will do this by helping them move away from labels such as difficult, challenging (a word I loathe) or troublesome.
Building Solution-Focused Talk Into Your Relationship
So, how can you build conversations with your child that are full of solution-focused talk?
First of all, try asking yourself:
What does my child like?
What is my child good at?
Is my child active? Creative? Or imaginative?
Do they enjoy books, listening to stories, or role playing?
What qualities and capabilities would others see in my child?
What would my child’s friends say about their strengths? Resources? Or capabilities?
If you have difficulty answering the questions above, it’s okay: you’re not alone.
Lots of parents get so focused on the difficulties of parenting that they lose sight of the positive, and thus, on who their child really is, and is becoming.
I recommend you look at how bonding with your kids is something you already do every single day – you just may not be paying attention to when that bonding is taking place.
It’s important to pay attention to the good times we have with our kids.
These times hold the clues to the stories, the connections and the moments when our relationships with our children are solution-rich as opposed to problem-laden.
If you want to shore up the relationship you have with your child and keep the connection that encompasses openness, honesty and intimacy, then you’re going to have to employ the right kind of reflective listening with your kids.
Am I better acquainted with my child’s weaknesses, deficits and shortcomings?
Do I know their mistakes more than their successes?
Or, am I engaged in conversations with my child about their strengths, greatness and positivity?
If you need a little help – and trust me, it’s never too late to turn the conversation around – then try these questions.
Ask your child:
What do you like?
What are you good at?
How did you get so good at that?
How did you know to do that so well?
What are you most proud of?
I can guarantee that when you connect your child to their strengths, you will help them build the tools they need express their best self – with self-confidence.
I have to imagine that any relationship in which a child has confidence in themselves and sees themselves as a good person is going to be a winning relationship.
Try using this positive, solution-focused, reflective listening with your kids, and I think you will be amazed at how quickly you notice your bond with them strengthen and deepen.
Final note: I don’t intend this to mean you shouldn’t discipline your children.
All kids need consistent, firm and fair boundaries.
What they don’t need is shame or negative feedback all the time.
Oh, and since this blog is mostly about relationships with your partner: all of these tips and strategies work extraordinarily well with your partner, too!
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About the Author
Jonathan Van Viegen is a full-time online therapist and relationship coach helping adults and couples improve one of the most important relationships in their life – the one with their partner. Jonathan’s approach has helped 100’s of clients struggling to maintain a lasting, loving relationship while navigating the challenges of parenting. Jonathan’s goal with this blog is to offer you a behind the scenes look at his life to show that it is possible to create the kind of relationship you desire – using simple skills that anyone can learn.