Aha! Parenting Blog

Practical solutions for real parenting problems

Stop, Drop, & Listen

"The importance of the parent-child relationship is above everything else in parenting. If you work on that relationship, over behavior, that will win in the end. You may not get the behavior in the short term but in the long term it's that bond that keeps kids safe and emotionally healthy." -- Judy Arnall

I wasn't born a good listener.  In fact, when I started my training as a psychologist, I had to work hard to keep my own mouth shut so I could really hear what my client was telling me.  Often, the most important information came out camouflaged, between other comments.  We all do that when we share our most vulnerable feelings. 

Kids are no different.  The feelings they're having a hard time handling pour out as what we usually consider bad behavior.  That tantrum my son had in front of the relatives at age three?  He felt I had betrayed him by not listening to his needs, doing instead what made them comfortable. (He was right.) That time when my daughter was twelve and started screaming at me?  She was all tangled up inside and trying to tell me about it, and I was too distracted to listen.

If we're lucky, our kids give us a second chance to listen -- by losing it!  If we respond by shutting them down -- yelling, punishing, giving a timeout, sending them to their room to "calm down," even demanding respect in that delicate moment -- we give them the clear message that they're on their own with those scary feelings.  If, instead, we can train ourselves to pay attention to "bad" behavior as a red flag, we:

1. Model self control and anger management (and we all know kids learn from what we do, not what we say!)

2. Help them develop emotional intelligence. When we stay calm, kids learn that feelings aren't dangerous.  Yes, they may swamp us, but then they evaporate. As they get more comfortable with their emotions, they learn how to regulate them.

3. Strengthen our bond with our child by showing up to help them when they most need us.

4. Give them the emotional tools they need to minimize these kinds of upsets as they get older.  When we listen and help them to reflect on what's driving their experience, they become more mindful and self-accepting.

5. Earn their respect, so they're more likely to be respectful to us in the future.

Why not try it?  Next time your child signals distress by raising her voice, just Stop. Drop everything else. Take a deep breath, and Listen, staying as calm as you can.  Remind yourself not to take this personally. Try to see it from her perspective and empathize.

Later, when everyone's calmed down, you'll find your child completely amenable when you make a gentle suggestion about the respectful tone you love to maintain in your house (or whatever other expectation you feel you need to set.)

By the time your child's a teen, he'll amaze others with his emotional stability.  He'll even amaze you, by intervening in a nurturing voice to help you calm down when YOU lose it. In a teenager, that's what I call a miracle.

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