Parenting is a tough job! It involves long hours, no pay and children do not come with a training manual. However, bonding well with your children can often help make the jobs of parenting easier and more enjoyable. In his 2010 book “1, 2, 3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children ages 2-12” Thomas Phelan, Ph.D., describes a powerful way to strengthen relationships with children known as sympathetic listening.
So what is sympathetic listening? It’s a way of talking to your child with empathy and making an effort to be respectful of their thoughts and feelings. When a parent is engaging in sympathetic listening, they are suspending their own thoughts and judgments and taking on the perspective of their child (even if they don’t agree with the perspective).
How does one “do” sympathetic listening? The first step involves getting yourself in a position that will allow you to listen to your child (no matter what). This may include thinking to yourself, “I’m going to hear my kid out — even if it’s hard and exhausting — and find out exactly what she thinks.” Sympathetic listening is not easy; however, there are four major listening strategies that can make it a little bit easier. The strategies include: using openers, asking nonjudgmental questions, reflecting feelings and using checks/summaries.
So your child walks in the door after school, throws their book bag on the floor, and begins talking about their horrible day at school. The first strategy for engaging in sympathetic listening involves using an opener. An opener can be anything that communicates that you are ready and willing to listen. Nonverbal examples of an opener include sitting down next to your child or putting down your phone or the newspaper. Verbal examples include statements such as “Wow,” “Yeah” or “Tell me what happened.”
After using an opener, your next task is to get more information to further your understanding of what your child is talking about. Kids are often more likely to share their thoughts and feelings when parents and adults ask nonjudgmental questions such as “What was going through your mind at that time?” or “What do you think about what happened?”
Another listening strategy involves reflecting your child’s feelings. Reflecting feelings is helpful in the perspective-taking process. It communicates that you are trying to not only understand a situation but also how your child might have felt during the event or situation. To reflect your child’s feelings you might say, “Wow that must have been really embarrassing” and “I haven’t seen you this upset in a long time.”
Reflecting feelings accomplishes several things. First, it helps children know that what he or she is feeling is OK. Second, reflecting feelings and responses also helps children build their self-esteem and independence. And finally, reflecting feelings can help children manage their negative emotions so that they are not acted upon.
Throughout a discussion with your child, it can be helpful to check and see if you are really getting a good idea of what your child is saying. Occasionally using short summary statements when talking with your child communicates that you are really listening and trying to understand their perspective. Examples of checks or summaries might be: “It sounds like you’re saying that our expectations at home are different for you and your brother” and “So you think it wasn’t very fair for your teacher to make you complete the assignment during recess.”
Remember that sympathetic listening is a skill and it takes time and practice to develop. Good listening also involves embracing the attitude of really trying to figure out what your child is thinking or experiencing, even if you don’t agree. When you engage in sympathetic listening, you will likely find yourself learning more about how your child thinks about life. So give sympathetic listening a try and challenge yourself to discover new ways of understanding and enjoying your kids.