I'm All Ears: Listening to Help Your Child Feel Safe


Welcome to the “I’m All Ears” Blog Series with Therapist Jan Pelletier from Hopeful Horizons! This three-part series will talk about parents’ use of listening. With parents at home every day with kids, we understand that anxiety and frustrations are running high! We hope this will help provide you with some techniques and ideas for managing the next few weeks.

Part One

Listening to Help Your Child Feel Safe:

3 Simple Steps

Stress is a common and normal condition that we all feel to various degrees every day. Stress is useful and necessary to our survival. Stress helps us respond to a perceived danger or fear, whether that is studying for a difficult test or jumping out of the path of an oncoming cyclist. In today’s health crisis, stress helps us to remember to wash our hands, cover our coughs, and prioritize social distancing. As parents and caregivers, we know how to keep our children’s bodies safe during a viral outbreak. Schools have closed, play dates paused, and extra-curricular activities ceased.

But what about our children’s minds and hearts? What can we do to ensure that our children are psychologically and emotionally safe during times of crisis?

Creating an environment for your child to speak and be heard is the goal. You must be willing to listen! The goal of listening to your child is to hear your child and convey to the child that you hear them. The goal is not to impose your thoughts or ideas, however helpful you may believe they are. Actively listening to your child demonstrates to her/him that she/he is your priority. It creates a relationship of trust, consistency and dependability. It fosters emotional security and encourages a child to talk to you. In a nutshell, it helps children feel safe.

Here are 3 simple steps to get you on your way!

Take 5-10 minutes each day to connect with your child, alone.

Do this away from other family members, away from the television, away from electronic devices. Perhaps you are doing a task together (making the bed, washing dishes, painting fingernails) or just sitting or walking together. Ideally, the activity should be chosen by the child. Depending on the child’s age, it may make sense for you to think of 2 or 3 activities beforehand and allow the child to choose the activity. This will allow you the chance to be certain the activity is appropriate, do-able, and ready-to-go while also giving the child the control of choice. This sends the message that this time is for the child, and you are here to follow his/her lead!

Listen.

Be open to anything your child may want to talk about, even if the child wants to talk about things that may make him/her feel angry, frustrated or sad. (Note: Physically aggressive or destructive behaviors should be addressed. Use whatever child-appropriate disciplinary tools you currently use as a parent to address these behaviors in the moment.) Keep your body language and tone of voice neutral. Be patient and allow the child time to finish their thought. The idea is to create an engaging conversation that fosters the child’s thinking, not yours. Emphasize the positive, make eye contact, and use positive touch (a pat on the hand, a hug, a high-five) to let the child know you are approving and supportive.

Reflect.

Repeating what your child is saying to you is a great way to let him/her know that you are listening. Reflecting thoughts and words your child has conveyed lets your child know that his/her views and opinions are important and matter to you. Here’s an example:

Child: This coronavirus is so stupid! I’m not even sick and I can’t see my friends!

Parent: I get it. You are upset because you can’t see your friends, even though you are not sick.

Child: Yeah – and I’m getting so bored just staying at home all day doing school work!

Parent: Focusing only on school work is boring for you.

Child: I want to do something different tomorrow, like go outside– something fun!

Parent: You want to do something fun and different tomorrow. Going outside is a great idea! Let’s do that!

Validate. Validate your child’s feelings by staying empathetic. If you find yourself becoming emotional, get yourself in check and re-set. Focus on listening, not solving. Recognize that your child’s problems may seem small to you but acknowledge that they are important to your child. Validating your child’s feelings is crucial to building both self-esteem and problem solving and will promote overall emotional health.

Here are some additional links on promoting children’s emotional health through listening:

The Value of Spending One-on-One Time with your Children (Kyle D. Pruett M.D.)

Why is it Important to Listen to Your Child?

Listening to Your Kids (Denise Mann)

5 Easy, Powerful Ways to Validate Your Child’s Feelings (Jeffrey Bernstein Ph.D.)

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