Here are some common pitfalls you should steer clear of:
1. Mom avoided the word “Why.” Asking questions like, “Why are you so mad?” tend to stifle children from saying what’s on their mind. To begin with, children may not know yet why they’re mad. And if they do know, they may not be ready to tell you. Questions are also threatening, because they imply children have done something wrong.
2. Some parents and teachers start to panic when their kids reveal feelings they don’t like. Most of us want our kids to think like us, and when they don’t, we naturally try to win them over. For instance, what would you say if your child said she hated school? “Oh no you don’t, you won’t get anywhere in life without an education!” In the back of her head, your child knows this, but right now, in the front of her head, she hates school. She needs to say this and feel it, before she can release it and go back to her usual way of thinking. You’d be surprised how quickly children’s feelings go away, after they’ve been heard. Imposing your own values on your children is not listening. Children should feel free to say whatever they want, without fearing their parents’ objections. Don’t expect your children to think like you.
3. Have you ever tried to unload a problem, and found your listener bursting at the seams with what-you-should-do’s or if-I-were-you’s. Not exactly what you want. You just want somebody to sit there and say nothing, so you can figure it out on your own. children are the same–they’d rather find their own answers. We as parents, however, find it faster and easier to tell our kids what to do. This also saves us the painstaking process of watching our children fumble through their problem solving. You need to have faith that your kids will eventually figure out what their problems are, and how they can resolve them. The more you trust your children, the more successful you’ll be at reflective listening. Some parents jump in and try to save the day for their kids by giving them answers, advice, analysis, or lectures about life. These lead children down the garden path, away from their real problems.
Giving advice, however is not the same as exploring alternatives. Children can benefit a lot from you helping them problem-solve. Your role is to (a) clarify your children’s feelings; (b) help them think of solutions; (c) discuss the good and bad points of each option and help your children pick one; (d) think through what will happen if your children follow through on their decisions; (e) set a time to evaluate their choices and choose other ones if necessary. It’s best to sit back as much as possible and leave the driving to your children.
4. Also resist the temptation of fueling your children with facts and information. These stop children from saying what’s on their mind, encourage a “No” response, and get in the way of your children’s problem solving. In the heat of the moment, children are not in the mood to entertain logic, facts, or information. It would be like trying to read a newspaper when you’re red with anger. What you need to do is left off some steam, then you can settle down to your newspaper. Besides, children often know the facts, and they don’t like being told what they already know. What’s more, by pumping your kids with information you’re also telling them you don’t think they know enough to solve their own problems.
5. Another dead-end response is the ho-hum look of disinterest. Dad doesn’t bother to show his face from behind the newspaper as Joey is spilling his guts out. Children infer their feelings or ideas are stupid and their parent don’t care about them. Parents who stop whatever they’re doing, look their child in the eye, and listen to what he’s saying, are giving an implicit message: “I respect you and what you have to say.” This gives children a sense of self-worth.
6. Another roadblock is the reassuring “Oh you poor thing.” Some parents can’t stand to see their children feeling bad. They try to wash their worries away by lathering them up with sympathies. These might help dry children’s tears, but they don’t solve problems. Reassurance is only helpful after children know their feelings are understood. Remember, it’s okay to let your children feel bad. Let it all hang out, and don’t try to smooth things out for them.
7. Other strategies which parents resort to, but shouldn’t are directing, demanding, warning, threatening, moralizing, preaching, criticizing, blaming, praising, buttering up, name-calling, ridiculing, diverting, and distracting. All of us at one time or another resort to these, often because we don’t know what else to say. However if you stopped and thought of your child not as a child, but as a friend with a problem I guarantee you’ll think of some better responses.