By Tom Prinz, M.S.
Most parents want to know how to talk to their youngsters so they will listen to them, but the most important thing for a parent to learn is how to really listen to their youngster. If you do not listen to your youngster, then they will not listen to you. Did your parents listen to you when you spoke as a child, or did you grow up under the saying that “Children should be seen and not heard?” Listening to our youngsters is a skill you can develop. It is a skill you may not have observed in your parents when you were a child.
A favorite question of mine is: “A joy not shared is cut in half and a sorrow not shared is doubled.” If you win a tournament or an honor or a promotion at work but have no one to share it with, then it is a kind of hollow victory. If you are suffering in pain or disappointment or frustrated about a relationship and have no one to share it with, then the pain increases. How sad I felt in a counseling session when a 17 year old boy told his parents that he had decided not to share his joys or sorrows with his parents. When he is away at college, who will he share the “A” he receives on a midterm with; when he later fails to get the job he wanted, who will he share the sorrow with? Fortunately, this family is working on these issues, and hopefully by the time he leaves home; he will be able to share his joys and sorrows with his parents.
What drove this youngster to not feel comfortable in sharing his thoughts, feelings and ideas with his parents? There are many ways that parents can stifle their youngsters from talking. One of the most common problems of parents is their inability to accept their youngster’s feelings. A child says he is afraid of the dark and the parent responds, “You don’t need to be afraid of the dark, our house is safe.” A youngster says, “You love my brother more than me,” and the parent responds, “No we don’t, we love you both the same.” In both situations, the parent has not accepted the youngster’s feelings. Parents need to say things like, “I know the house can seem scary at night,” or “Boy, I bet that really makes you feel sad that you feel we love your brother more than you.” Then you might ask in a non-threatening way what has led to those feelings and then follow up with some reassuring statements. Not accepting your youngster’s feelings is very harmful to their self-esteem. We need to accept feelings even if the logic that they have used to arrive at those feelings is not sound. Remember, feelings are neither right or wrong: they are just there.
Offering advice to your youngster when they share their feelings or ideas will also stifle communication if they are not looking for advice. Validate their ideas, praise their ideas, and ask them if they want suggestions before offering suggestions or solutions.
Always telling your child a better way to do something, or saying you liked the B they got on the report card but if they try harder they could get an A, will not encourage them to share with you.
A youngster in counseling who had to use a crutch because he was experiencing some arthritis in his hip, expressed anger to his father because his father was making fun of his limp. Being critical and sarcastic is another way to stifle communication. It is a trait that many parents have learned from their parents and may even accept it as a normal way of communicating.
Simply not being available will also make it difficult for you to listen to your youngster. The 17 year-old’s father in the previous example had devoted much of his life to his job and relatively little time to just being with his son. Youngsters won’t typically share things with you if you go into their room and say, “Share with me,” but they will share if you are taking them out to dinner or to their ball game or shopping.
Another quote that I frequently tell parents is “Don’t let guilt keep you from doing what’s right and it’s never too late to do what’s right.” Many parents feel guilty that they haven’t responded appropriately to their youngsters feelings and ideas, but don’t let that stop you from changing your ways. Discuss your shortcomings with your youngster and commit to them to become a better listener.
A Challenge to You
1. Looking back at your childhood, did your parents really listen to you? If not, what did they do that kept you from sharing with them?
2. Think about a time that your youngster shared his/her feelings and you did not really accept them. Go to them and try to discuss those feelings with them now.
Tom Prinz, M.S., Marriage and Family Therapist, and a Licensed Educational Psychologist, was a School Psychologist for 7 years and has been in private practice as a Family Counselor for 25 years. He and his wife, Pam, have been married for 36 years and are the proud parents of Robyn, 33, Matthew, 30, and Chrissy, 27. Tom has conducted seminars on parenting and marriage enrichment for the past 30 years. Counseling with parents and couples has enabled Tom to identify hidden factors or ‘dragons’ that will interfere with an adult’s ability to apply appropriate parenting and marriage tools effectively and consistently. He is the author of two books, Dragon Slaying for Parents and Dragon Slaying for Couples.