As new parents we listen to every single little noise our babies make. Breathing, snorting, snuffling, rolling, kicking - whatever the noise, it acts as a signal, communicating a range of needs at a time when words are off the table.
As our children get older they become more independent and our need to sit and really listen lessens. As our children grow we find that we are more able to listen to them alongside getting lots of our to do list completed. Of course this can be extremely useful but listening is vital to a child’s wellbeing and their ability to develop connection, empathise and share.
When a child feels listened to it builds their self-esteem, places value on their contributions and develops their understanding of their place in the world. It is impossible to actively listen to your child 100% of the time however by making attempts at the following we can improve the relationships we have with them and help them to feel secure.
EYE CONTACT. When a child speaks to you, turn and face them. By doing this we are signalling to them “I am present and I am ready to listen”.
DEVICES. A child is well aware that our attention is being divided when we have one eye on a screen and another on them. This situation is common and reasonable as we try to accommodate the many aspects of parent life. Instead of trying to multitask, turn to your child and inform them that you are busy right now and that you will be ready to listen in a minute. Ask them to place their hand on your arm so that they know they have been acknowledged and that you are coming back to them. Wait for a moment where you can pause the present task so that you can turn to your child and give them your full attention.
This technique is also effective if you are speaking with another adult and your children are prone to interrupting. My children place a hand on my arm so that I know they are there and that they have something they want to say. When I have finished my conversation I take their hand and show them that I am listening. With a bit of luck it will avoid thousands of half finished conversations. They are also aware that interrupting for an emergency is permitted!
ACKNOWLEDGE AND RESPOND. When your child is telling you something, always consider it important. “I only have 9 raisins and he has 10” may not feel like it should be broadcast on the 9 o'clock news but to your child it feels like a major event. Acknowledge what your child has said and reflect it back to them “You feel it is unfair that you have less raisins than him, I can see it is making you angry, I understand why you might feel like that”. This shows your child that you have heard what they are saying, you recognise the emotion that comes with this situation and you are being non-judgemental of it.
MINDFULNESS. As always mindfulness comes to the rescue. The more we practice mindfulness the more we will be able to apply it in our day to day life. There is a specific mindfulness practice that can enhance our ability to pay attention fully - it is a practice of focusing on your breath alongside really listening to someone talk for three minutes, you then swap and you do the talking. Practicing this mindful listening regularly enhances your listening skills. Alongside this, any mindfulness practice will develop our ability to be present. Mindfulness allows us to consider a response rather than experience a reaction, this is vital in all parenting.
TOUCH. When your child approaches and begins to talk to you, with permission, place a hand on their hand, tenderly hold their arms or place a hand on their knee. Touch can be a very powerful way of connecting and signalling that you are showing up for them. Always pay close attention to your child’s response in order for them to refuse this physical connection should they wish to. Asking first before you cuddle, tickle children or even before changing a baby's nappy are ways we can model the concept of boundaries and consent.
STOP. If you are on the move and you can sense that your child is starting to get angry, upset or frustrated, stop, come down to their level and look into their eyes as you communicate with them. This will help them to know that they are being heard, that their feelings are being recognised and that they are safe.
TIME. Finally, set aside times where your child has regular opportunities to talk. This could be bath time, after story time, meal time or on the walk to school. These are vital occasions that provide a point of connection where a child knows they can share what they are experiencing, thinking or feeling whether that be what they had for lunch at school or how their peers have been treating them. They know that that moment is always available.