the importance of listening

In my work with divorced parents, I often hear fear, trepidation, and frustration about the inability to control the child's experience while under the other parent's care.

This takes many forms ... my kids are eating junk food at the other house! not going to bed early enough! not finishing the antibiotics! wearing shorts to school in cold weather! hearing terrible things about me that are not true!

All these things seem monumental when added to the tremendous grief and sense of powerlessness that are inherent in the process of divorce with children. And I get that, I really really really do, because I felt the exact same way when I was recently divorced.

Here's what I wish I knew back then:

There are things that will happen in your child's life that you cannot fix ... that you cannot make better or make go away.

They will have to walk through those things rather than around them, and this will probably happen MUCH younger than you ever wanted or hoped for them. Kids of divorce grow up fast.

But you can still help, and the most powerful way to do that is to LISTEN.

That's it, folks. Just listen.

Listen without giving advice.

Listen without coaching them about how to communicate better with their other parent.

Listen with acceptance.

Listen to understand their experience and perspective, not to change it.

While you listen, put yourself in their shoes and see if you can understand their dilemma, their ambivalence, their pain, their confusion. And if you can relate, let them know that. Say, "I get it, honey. That stinks. I wouldn't like it either," or, "You kinda want to tell him what you want, and you wonder how he might react if you do."

I just read an interview with Dr. William R. Miller that inspired me to write about this. He's discussing Motivational Interviewing and why it is helpful in treating addictions, but I think his point generalizes very well to parenting:

I think the experience of acceptance is transforming and lets people look at their life in a context that’s safe.

I think that as people are enabled to talk about their present situation without immediately being told what to do, without being given advice, without being judged, shamed, scolded and so forth, they literally talk themselves into changing.
Replace "talk themselves into changing" in the last sentence with "solve their own problems" and this is an excellent explanation for why it's so important for us to listen to our children.

The truth is that your child is the only one who has the information and experience required to solve his or her problem. We might think we have a great solution, and it's okay to share it after asking permission ("I have an idea that I think might help, honey, would you like to hear it?")

But we have to respect deep inside of us that the choice lies with the child. And sometimes, a child will choose to let a problem go rather than try to tackle it -- to endure rather than advocate.

This can be hard for proactive and assertive parents to witness; they can't understand why a child would not speak up, and they can wonder where they dropped the ball -- how they did not teach self-empowerment to their offspring?

Here's the deal: speaking up is great when the playing field is level. And it is almost always NOT level between a child and an adult, be that a parent or teacher.

So if your ten year old comes home complaining of being exhausted because she was at daddy's softball game until 11 pm, you might be tempted to go rushing for the phone to rip your ex a new one for being so irresponsible. You might also be tempted to tell her that next time she needs to speak up and let daddy know she's tired.

Instead, try to sit down, listen, and acknowledge what you are hearing:

Mom: Oh, so it was a late night for you, huh.

Child: Yeah. I hate going to daddy's games. Everyone there is so loud.

Mom: Yeah, there's a lot going on in those bleachers. It can be kinda fun and kinda overwhelming all at the same time.

Child: I know! I wish I could just bring a tent or something so I don't have to be in the middle of all that noise all the time.

Mom: So it would feel better to you to have your own little quiet space, like a little cave or something, where you could go when it got too noisy.

Child: Yeah, a lot better.

Mom: I understand that.

Child: Hey, maybe if I brought my iPod, I could at least hear my music instead of all those people yelling and cheering.

Mom: Wow, that sounds like a great thing to try!

Child: And maybe if I brought a picnic blanket, I could cover my head with it and lay down on one of the benches if I got tired.

I know that this kind of listening does not come easy all the time. It can be really hard to see our children in a less than optimal circumstance without wanting to rush in and save them from discomfort!

Sometimes we'll all revert to giving unsolicited advice, or asking something like, "What was your dad thinking taking you to those ballfields on a school night?" These things happen.

But when we are feeling extra resourceful, and when we remember, we can try just listening instead. And when we forget, we can let it go and move on. There will be plenty of opportunities to try again.

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit

No comments: