Listening to Children
In the last article, we set out the key principles of listening well. These are applicable to adults and children of all ages. As we reflect on giving in the build up to Christmas, let’s remember that communicating with love in both what we say, and crucially, what we don’t say is a priceless gift. A gift that gives back as we, the listener, also benefit from improvements in our relationships.
So how can we listen to children, who often communicate very differently from adults and may not even talk at all?
The importance of listening begins at birth when infants need adults who can attune to their limited ways of communicating and meet their basic needs. Initially babies cry but gradually develop a range of verbal and non verbal signals to communicate distress, discomfort and pleasure. Over the course of time, by watching and experimenting, many parents/carers become experts at reading these signals and are able to respond appropriately. Some find this process more challenging and may need support to be able to tune into what their child is communicating. It’s important to remember that:
-Babies cry for a reason, they have no other means of communication
-They don’t cry to ‘wind you up’, as much as it might feel like that sometimes. Their brain is just not that sophisticated.
-Watch carefully, look at them closely, hold them in your arms and smile. This shows them you’re listening and you love them. They will be absorbed in looking back at your face, reading your expression and you’ll both experience a wonderful sense of wellbeing.
As children develop past infancy they generally develop a wider range of verbal and non verbal forms of communication. They begin to play, and this is an essential part of both their self expression and brain development as it allows them to process and make sense of the world around them. Susan Linn, psychiatrist writes that ‘play is the foundation of learning, creativity, self expression and constructive problem solving. It’s how children wrestle with life to make it meaningful’. In order to listen to children, especially young children, we need to take seriously and engage in their play. They may not be able to tell us their fears or their joys but they will be exploring these themes through play.
When we play with children as a form of listening we don’t set the agenda. We allow them to lead, choosing what it is they want to do and how they want to do it.
-We physically move to be at their level, eg. sitting on the floor
-We give them our full attention and try to phase out the noise both around us and the noisy thoughts inside our heads
-We watch and sometimes remain silent.
-At other times we reflect back to them the emotions expressed through the play or simply what they’re doing. This can feel strange but it shows them we’re listening, taking an interest and helps them understand what it is they’re doing in play.
-We may provide some additional resources to aid self expression such as art materials or play dough if the child enjoys this kind of play.
Older children, and some younger children (depending on their development and sense of safety) will be able to engage in conversation about their lives. However for many children including adolescents, play and creative expression remain central as this creates a safe distance between their real lives and imaginary ones. Some helpful things to remember when listening to older children are:
-Continue to let them lead the conversation as much as possible, with the majority of your time spent in silence. Respect their silence and the cues they give you that they do not want to talk or that in fact they want to talk about something else. For example it may be that what’s important to them right now is their football team as opposed to what you had in mind. If a particular topic needs discussing then agree a time and place when you can both talk about this.
-Use open ended questions such as ‘how did you find it when…….’.
-Rather than assuming you know what they’re feeling ask ‘I wonder if you felt like that when…..’
-paraphrase back what you have heard them say and check if you’ve understood.
-Consider arranging a ‘talking time’, a regular slot when you’re available to talk. Make it a special and enjoyable experience for them by thinking about the environment. For example do you go out to a cafe, provide nice snacks and blankets at home, provide a special note book and pen etc
-Some children will feel uncomfortable or find it impossible to engage when we try and talk with them in the structured way outlined above. Shared activities that don’t involve too much eye contact such as kicking a ball at the park or driving in the car also offer opportunities to initiate conversation and communicate your desire to know and hear them.
All of the above is useful when thinking about how we listen to adolescents. Once again it’s essential to let them lead and show you how and when they want to communicate. Follow their interests and let them guide you about what’s important to them, you may be surprised! Learn to appreciate what they’re interested in (even if you don’t enjoy it yourself) by asking questions and taking the time to listen to what it is they love. Music and song lyrics can be a good place to start. Ask them, without expressing your own feelings, about their favourite songs and artists of the moment and listen together to the lyrics. This might prompt an interesting discussion and allow you to demonstrate your desire to listen and know them.
Above all remember that listening lays the foundation for all healthy human beings. It’s a gift that is as important to children as it is adults. It may seem unnatural to ‘listen’ to a child through being with them in play but we’re communicating the same values; we see them, we are interested in them and we want to understand and empathise with their lived experience.