October 16, 2006

LISTENING - The Most Important Part of Parental Communication

If you do not listen... they will stop talking!

All too often, when people say that they can't communicate with their kids what they really mean is that they don't know how to talk so that their kids will listen. What they forget is that their own listening habits are probably more important than any thing they might say!

One of the most loving and personality-shaping things that a parent can do for a child is to simply listen to them! Kids of all ages have questions, thoughts, feelings, and observations, which will be very enlightening and instructional to parents who can learn to listen.
Listening can be life saving!

This behavior of listening to children can begin at the very earliest of ages. When our first son, Drew, was 4-5 months old we took him to our Pediatrician, Dr. Verne, an extremely perceptive and intelligent man. He said something to us that made great sense and ultimately saved Drew's life at the age of 8 months. While in his office, Drew began to cry after receiving a shot. We, the young parents, began to comfort our little boy by saying, "Oh, don't cry Drew, you're OK. Don't cry."

Dr. Verne interrupted us and said something very challenging and something that changed our behavior forever. He very calmly said, "Don't tell him to stop crying, he is trying to tell you something in the only way he knows how… listen to him! The shot hurt and he is telling you that! Listen, and respond to what he is telling you."

From that day on we tried our best to listen to our own children, as well as to all of the kids we worked with at school. About 3-4 months after listening to Dr. Verne's sage advice, Drew began to cry rather violently in the middle of the night. We became alarmed and Barbara called the Emergency Room. The On-Call Doctor had her describe the situation and made a diagnosis over the phone. He concluded that our baby had gas and he phoned in a prescription for a mild pain medication. Barbara thought about that for a moment after hanging up and she said, "That doesn't make sense. Drew is trying to tell us something about how he is feeling… we need to listen to him; not give him a drug that will hide the symptoms."

So, at that moment, in the middle of the night, we called and awakened Dr. Cobb, the doctor who delivered Drew. (Dr. Verne, the Pediatrician, was out of town.) He told us to bring the baby in and let him take a look at him. To make a long story short, after he examined Drew, he immediately loaded us in his car and drove us to the next town, where an internal surgery specialist operated immediately and saved Drew's life! Had Barbara not listened it most certainly would have been fatal!

Man, did we ever learn a lesson! Kids so often give us tons of information about how they are feeling and thinking, if we will just stop talking, telling, and explaining and listen with all of our intellect and understanding.
Questions are often disguised.

Now let's move ahead to a period that has been wrongfully labeled "the Terrible-Twos." At that age kids are attempting to establish a sense of self and they are incessantly asking "Why?" Instead of becoming alarmed, annoyed, or angered by this questioning behavior, what we need to do is listen carefully to the questions. (Sometimes the questions are cleverly disguised as tantrums or fits.) They are asking about the world and how it works, and if we respond by ignoring them or telling them to be quiet we are simply teaching them not to ask for guidance from adults. They will get the answers but they just won't get them from you. It all starts with listening to them! Once you develop a habit of careful listening, children rapidly learn that the way to get information to use in making the critical decisions in life often is to ask Mom and Dad.
Listening becomes critical with teens.

When they become teens they enter into the next period which so many parents wrongfully label annoying. What kids are doing in the teen years is asking similar questions but about more difficult topics. Listen carefully to the questions and listen completely. They are just like 2-year olds only, "Why can't I have a green Popsicle?" and "Why can't I wear pajamas to the store?" are replaced by, "Why do you believe in God?" and "Why can't I stay out with the gang until 1:00 in the morning?" The key here is to listen carefully and only give answers that are carefully thought out. Give them answers that they canuse to make good solid decisions.
At these times it is imperative to stop what you are doing and give the child absolutely 100% of your attention and listening ability. Put down the paper, turn off the TV, stop working and look them in the eye as they speak. So many parents miss this critical moment for input into their children's stockpile of ideas that will rule their world.
Rather than listening and answering carefully, many parents ignore the teen and wait until the he/she has asked elsewhere and gotten a different answer from another source (often the other source has given much less desirable advice.) Then the parents try to express their disapproval of the bad decision and they try, usually unsuccessfully, to change the decision and poor behavior after the fact.

We learned later that there were six key words or phrases that we could use to listen effectively. They are: "Oh?", "Really?", "Wow!", "Uuummm!", "I didn't know you felt like that!" and "Tell me more." These particular words are not magic and you can devise some of your own, but you must have some key phrases like that, ready to offer at the drop of a hat anytime a child begins to talk to you. These phrases must be non-judgmental evidence that you have heard what is said, without interrupting or offering your own thoughts before they are asked for. In that kind of atmosphere kids can, and will, openly express themselves! Then, you, the parent, will begin to learn what they are thinking, feeling, and wondering about.

Another key element of effective listening says that, at times, a parent must simply bite their lip and not say anything. Kids may not be seeking advice but rather simply looking for a sounding board. (This would never apply when a child is sharing thoughts about something illegal, immoral, or life-threatening!) By simply listening, the parent leaves open the lines of communication so that a child's thoughts can be safely and confidently shared.

In closing, it is important to note that a critical offshoot of this approach is that listening to them clearly says something very important to the child. It says, "You are a valued person with valid ideas and I like to hear them." It builds confidence in a child's thinking, reasoning, and decision-making abilities.
Listen carefully and constantly to your children.

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