This is a time for counting our blessings. Yet, how often do we focus on how we can make our relationships better? If we can honestly say we listen to our children, to our partners, then it’s a sure bet they’re talking to us. When we feel connected, with authenticity and compassion, we are listening and understanding what those closest to us have to say. Not just the words, but we’re hearing their emotions beneath the words. That’s genuine connection.

Most parents want a close relationship with their children, one that underscores good communication. We also want to respond to our children in ways that make them feel safe and feel good about themselves. That said, parents are vulnerable people as well, with our own concerns and problems. Whatever the cause of these, they become the undercurrents of our daily lives, often preventing us from really listening to our children. When we are not present, or we’re tuned out, we not only miss what’s being said, but even more importantly, we miss the feelings behind the message.

One of the most prevalent issues interfering with each parent’s listening is having too little time with too much to do. A parent’s inability to hear is often a question of bad timing. We miss a sweet opportunity, a nuanced gesture, a poignant moment when our child reaches out to us quietly, hoping to be heard. A child’s verbal feelers can be buried during the tense, transitioning moments when a parent arrives home from work. Or while she/he is trying to get dinner ready while also helping with homework, or listening to another sibling’s problems. Yet there are other more complex reasons for a parent not hearing the messages behind a child’s words.

When Sam was told he’d be going to his friend’s after school, he started crying. His mom was cross with him, pushing him out the door to the car to ensure they weren’t late that morning. She later realized she just didn’t want to hear his objections; she also had no alternatives and depended on this arrangement while she worked. Her guilt overshadowed her day, for not being available and for not having an alternative for Sam’s after-school care. Given that she had no positive way to address the problem, she blocked it out, allowing her guilt to provide effective “earplugs.” She couldn’t listen to or accept Sam’s crying.

Being a parent is often a struggle between who we think we should be and who we really are, what we would like to do and what we realistically are able to do. Thus, parents have idealized notions of what a good parent should be and are continually plagued by this vision of perfection. Rather than confront that comparison between the idealized parent and the real self, many parents simply block any experiences that potentially force them to measure themselves against their impossibly high standards.

When parents feel responsible for their child’s pain, believing they need to fix it, one common response is to try to deny and ignore any evidence of that pain. This is often a time when parents, witnessing their child’s distress as simply too painful, will jump to solving the problem rather than allowing their child to express and deal with his/her feelings about the problem. Unfortunately, most parents believe it is their job to spare their child any pain. Instead, parents need to connect to the emotions their child is expressing, either in words or behavior, to help him/her share what’s going on and make a decision about what he/she can do.

Sometimes, focusing on defining one’s role as a parent conflicts with being a good listener. As an example, if we measure our success as parents by how successfully our children reflect our values, contradictions and conflicts may lead to selective hearing. Many parents view their relationship with their child as “one-up, one-down,” thus blocking hearing their child. Listening might represent a certain amount of equality, involving accepting children on their own terms. Thus parents employ selective hearing, because they believe they should have strict control. Others don’t want to listen to any complaints or ambivalent feelings because they believe acknowledging how their child feels means they should agree with her/him. Yet parents can allow their children to freely express their feelings, hearing and supporting them, without necessarily agreeing with them or approving of their behavior.

What makes it so hard to connect to the root of the problem our child is having, without giving up our authority? When a child is misbehaving, we believe we must first stop the behavior by punishing or redirecting. Yet, hearing and understanding the feelings driving the behavior, even when pain or distress is being expressed, builds connection. Sometimes our emotional reactions causing us to ignore our children’s words or behavior have little to do with our feelings about being parents and more to do with feelings we ourselves had as children. Our own unresolved childhood issues can be suppressed until we become parents, when our children then tap into those conflicted emotions. These can overpower us at times, compromising our ability to see our children as separate individuals with very different temperaments. This only prevents our ability to disengage to hear their struggles.

When a child feels heard and understood, connection is made. It’s a chance for the problem to shift, possibly disappearing. You are saying to your child: “You are important enough for me to put aside my assumptions, my hang-ups, what I’m imagining, to really understand who you are.” You’re then communicating that you value her/him enough for her/him to be heard, that you care enough to have her/him explore and share feelings. You’re also saying to her/him, “Your thoughts matter, and I can temporarily put aside my busy schedule to listen to them.” Most importantly, you’re telling your child, “I don’t have to agree with or fix your feelings; however, I care about you enough to always want to hear what your behavior or words are trying to tell me.”

More on the “Art of Communication” next time....

Have a happy, safe Thanksgiving!

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