How to Listen so Your Child will Talk

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How to Listen so Your Child will Talk

Nothing is more important in your relationship with your child than effective, open communication.  However, one of the most common complaints from parents is that their child won’t talk to them.

A big part of being a strong communicator is being a good listener.  When your child knows that you will listen when they talk, your child will be more likely to listen to what you have to say.  By communicating effectively with your child, you will alleviate much of the stress that comes with being a parent.

Verbal and nonverbal ways to be a good listener

* Respond to nonverbal communication.  This will encourage your child to express their emotions verbally.  For example, if your child rolls their eyes, you might say, “The way you are rolling your eyes suggests you don’t agree. Am I right?”  Then let them voice their emotions without criticism.

* Find a time and place to talk.   When your child approaches you to talk but you cannot right at that moment, let your child know “now is not the right time, but it’s important that we talk”.  Set a specific time and place to talk later, when you can give your child the full attention they deserve.  Set the time and place with them, and make sure you follow through.

*Give your child your full attention.  When you sit down to talk, make sure there are not any interruptions and give your child your full attention. Don’t answer the phone or check your cell phone, or be watching the game or anything on TV.  Show your child the same respect you would want them to give you.

* Avoid interrupting, have patience.  Letting your child finish what they want to say shows that you care about what they have to say.  Sometimes it takes forever for a child to say a sentence, it’s easier to complete the sentence for them, but don’t do it.  Have patience and give them their time.

* Give nonverbal encouragement.  Lean forward and make eye contact, nod occasionally, say “uh-huh” or “mmm”, and smile when appropriate to let your child know that you are interested in what they are saying.


Learn to communicate effectively

Communication happens with everything you do or don’t do.  It includes your verbal and non-verbal cues, your mannerisms, your behavior, and your attitude.  A parent needs to do more than simply “communicate,” a parent needs to be effective.

What you think you are conveying may actually be the opposite to your child.  Children and teens do not have the knowledge, experience, or maturity to fully understand. Therefore, it is important that you talk with them on their level, not yours.  Just because you have a smart child does not mean they have the capacity to fully understand.

Two common reasons children won’t talk is because they have learned that when they do talk, the adults interrupt, finish their sentences, or dismiss what they said.   The other common reason is that they are fearful of the response from the parent.  If you want a child, or anyone for that matter, to truly listen and talk “with” you, you have to learn how to stop talking “to” them. If a child feels like a parent won’t really listen to them or is afraid of the parent’s response, they will hold back.

You are telling your kids that they are not important whenever you get defensive, critical, finish their sentences, or assume what they are saying.  It leads the child to believe they have no worth, leading them to stop talking.  A parent can tell their kids phrases like “I love you” or “you’re great” every day, but it means nothing if the parent’s actions tell a different story. 

Kids feeling that their parents don’t really care enough to listen to their needs and wants can lead to anxiety, depression, and anger.  Your behavior is teaching them to talk and feel safe to speak, if they don’t feel safe to express their emotions and thoughts, they won’t.

Keep in mind that YOU are teaching your child how to communicate.  If they find that you don’t listen to them and their needs, then they won’t listen to you.  Your child’s behavior is a mirror of those around them, they learn how to interact with others by watching and observing YOUR actions.  Note that I did not say they learn by what you tell them or read to them in a book.  They learn by observing your actions and behaviors.  Like the old saying goes; “Behave the way you want your kids to behave”.  If you effectively communicate with your child, then they will communicate with you. 

Daniel Roberts is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Marriage and Family Therapist, and author in Tallahassee, Florida.

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