Updated: May 14, 2020
Recently, I was reminded of how important it is to listen as a parent. Not moving directly into the “lesson” or trying to change behavior, but listening with true and authentic curiosity. Busy parenting, especially single parenting can feel as difficult as herding cats and it is so very easy (and understandable) to lapse into doing the quickest, easiest thing rather than keep our minds open to hearing our child’s voice.
My lesson came not long ago, when I offered a neighborhood boy, a pair of shoes that my son never wore and was soon to outgrow. I was caught by surprise when my son broke down in tears and threw himself on his bed and burrowed under the covers. As a problem solver (and frankly tired and hoping the moment would pass quickly and not derail our bedtime routine) my immediate reaction was rational. “I bought them and you never wore them and now they’re too small”. Followed by an ethical lesson as in, “you should enjoy giving not just getting”. Despite my sound moral reasoning, my son became even more sad and angry. My intuition was telling me I was on the wrong track. Clearly, I sensed we were headed for a long emotional meltdown instead of bedtime stories, back tickles, and some much-awaited time alone for myself. Hoping to turn things around, I took a deep breath shifted gears and since I had no other ideas, I got curious.
“Okay…I think I can understand that you’re upset I gave the shoes away without asking, is that right?
“Yes” he mumbled
“I’m sorry, you’re right, I should have asked. Still it seems like there's something more you’re feeling or something else?”
“Yea…(Long pause) I feel bad, you’re right, I never wore the shoes. Now I won’t ever be able to wear them and they will think I didn’t like them”.
I was struck by how far off I was in truly understanding my son, and how once I “got him” he shifted gears. Instead of a tantrum, I was given a glimpse into the sensitive world of my son, where shoes apparently have feelings. I was able to recall and share my own experience of how I felt, when as a child, I had to pick only two stuffed animals to take on our family trips, leaving all of the others behind. Emotions quickly settled and we were able to repair our disconnection with a good bedtime story and snuggle.
As parents we all have our “triggers", strong feelings of which we may be unaware and are usually tied to our deeper values, desires or anxieties. I apparently have a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to things that look, sound or in any way remind me of selfishness. Our own internal agendas, if unknown to us, can incite our own anxiety and keep us from grasping what is really happening through the eyes of our children. To be clear I’m not suggesting you should ignore bad behavior or negotiate endlessly with children because they are upset, but when children are distinctly emotional it is often more effective to talk less and listen more before deciding what action to take. Take a breath, ask an honest question and give your child time to reflect and tell you what's going on inside of their heart and mind. Even if you have to follow through with a consequence, you may find, in what might have seemed to be just another frustrating interruption in the schedule, a sweet opportunity for connection.
Please visit kristinlittlecounseling.com for more about Kristin Little LMHC, Child Specialist services and published books supporting children and families in divorce.