Making Sure Children Feel Understood

Dec 17, 2010

In the course that I teach at the University of South Florida, we discuss the difference between listening and hearing. I have touched on this idea in previous posts, and it is extremely important to understand that they are not the same thing. Especially when we interact with our children, it is imperative that we not only listen to them, but let them know that we understand what they are feeling.

I was out a few weeks ago, and overheard a conversation between two parents and their daughter. I would guess that she was eight years old, and she was an only child. The parents were discussing the possibility of the mother quitting her current job and starting with a different employer. As the conversation went on, the parents decided to begin the process of explaining to their daughter what a new job for mom would mean for the rest of the family.

The conversation went like this:

Dad: “Your mom is going to be working at a new job soon, which means you will have to go to after-school care every day.”

Daughter: “No, I don’t want to go to after-school care every day!”

Dad: “You’ll have to go every day, but your mom will be home every night for dinner and to tuck you into bed”.

Daughter: “But I don’t like after-school care!”

Dad: “There are always things that we don’t like. We have to take the good with the bad. Don’t you think it is a good trade off to have your mom home every night?”

Daughter: (who at this point, puts her head down on the table and won’t make eye contact). “No, it’s not a good trade off if I have to go to after-school care”.

Dad: “Look at me. I am trying to talk to you. What is so bad about after-school care? You get to play games, hang out with your friends, do fun things.”

Daughter: “I don’t like it.”

Dad: “Well, we don’t always like everything we have to do. But, you’ll only have to be there until I get off of work, and then we get to come home and your mom will be there to eat dinner with us and help with homework”.

Daughter: (At this point, she quit responding verbally all together.)

I thought it was curious that the mom never spoke up, especially since it was her schedule that was changing. However, it was very clear that the parents had made up their minds and they were trying to convince the daughter that she should be in agreement that it was a good idea.

Here are the major issues with the conversation and how it could have been handled differently.

1. Not enlarging the meaning of her responses.

It was very obvious that the girl did not want to go to after-school care. It really doesn’t matter why, so asking her was moot. Regardless of the reason, she did not like the thought of going five days a week. My guess is that it was fear of the unknown more than actually not wanting to be there. Kids get used to a normal routine, and being told it will change can be scary for them. Rather than dwell on why, it would have been helpful to say, “I wonder if you are worried what it will be like every day since you have never done that before”. The beauty about reading into what kids say is that if you are wrong, they will correct you. If you are right, they will feel understood.

2. Not reflecting her feelings.

Her father clearly wanted her to agree that it was a good trade off to have her mom home at night. Unfortunately, every time the girl communicated how she was feeling, she was basically told that her feelings were wrong. When a child expresses an emotion, it should be our goal to acknowledge what they are feeling and tell them what they are demonstrating. So, he could have said, “You are really upset about going to after-school care every day”. Notice that there is no convincing her otherwise – you are merely reflecting back what she shows. This helps her feel that you are listening, as well as teach her an emotional vocabulary to better express her feelings. Read more about ways to effectively Reflect Feelings here.

3. Not letting her express her emotions.

When a child disengages (putting her head down, ceasing conversation, etc.), she is communicating one of several things. In this instance, I believe it was frustration at not feeling validated, conceding that there was no point in presenting her opinion, because no one cared what she thought anyway. The father insisted that she look up and carry on with the conversation. It would have been appropriate to say, “I can tell that you need a break from talking about this. We can talk more about it later.”

4. One of the rules of thumb that I teach in my parenting training course is “When a child is drowning, it is not the time to teach them to swim”.

The translation of that is if a child is wrapped up in heavy emotions, they are not at a point where they can see a bigger picture or be taught a lesson. When the father said things like, “we have to take the good with the bad”, he was wasting his breath. Imparting a lesson or moral when a child is struggling to make sense of their feelings is not only mistimed, but ineffective. It would have been more helpful to revisit that lesson ( a valid moral, might I add) a month down the road, after she has adjusted to the new schedule and likes having mom home at night. Before bed, he might say, “Remember when you were worried about mom getting a new job, and thought you wouldn’t like the changes? Now you can see that even though it might have been hard at first, there were good things, too. There are always positives and negatives to everything. You should be proud that you worked through it, even though it was scary.”

The bottom line is this – when a child expresses feelings to you, it can be challenging to let them have their opinion, especially if you don’t agree. The key is remembering that perception is reality. Seeing things from their perspective is just what they need to learn how to better communicate what they think, feel and believe. If they are only ever told what they should think, feel or believe about a situation, how will they ever know what it means to make decisions for themselves? So, challenge yourself to reflect feelings back to your kids this week, and watch them develop a better understanding of themselves, as well as an appreciation for their parents who really and truly “get” them.

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