Updated: Feb 24
Her laughter and giggles fill our home on a daily basis, but the sound I hear tonight is sobbing. True, heartfelt sobbing. Her little shoulders shake and tears stream down her face unabated.
As parents, when we hear this sound, we fear the worst. We want to ask one hundred questions. What’s wrong? Has someone hurt you? Did you have a fight with a friend? Are you alright? Our desire is to reassure. Our instinct is to get the facts so that we can fix and solve and make things better. My own wild thoughts of revenge on anyone who hurt my baby or dispensed some injustice toward her, fill my head. At the same time, I’m crossing my fingers that she hasn’t done something silly or got herself into some sort of trouble. Yet, I know that neither offering reassurance or leaping to premature problem solving (or worrying) will benefit her.
I’ve learned to still these urges, knowing that when I seek to solve the problem and take away her pain; when I get angry and upset on her behalf; when I reassure her that everything will be alright; when I cajole her from her upset, I end up missing an opportunity for something else. Something more profound. When I am able to put my own concerns aside, be fully present and listen, truly listen, I free myself to hear and acknowledge her pain. To know her more deeply, even if I may not immediately be able to help her.
Listening to my daughter and feeling with her helps to communicate understanding and it builds connection. Listening provides painful feelings a safe place to fall.
Sometimes that is enough. Sometimes in order to be healed, all that is required to is to be heard. And other times it is the place from which solutions may arise, remembering that they arise from her, not from me. The danger in giving in to our urge to fix things is that we focus on solutions rather than first hearing the feelings and finding the true source of the upset.
Feelings are like layers of an onion and the first things we hear are sometimes the superficial concerns rather than the deeper distress. Often there is more to discover than what lays on the surface. Stepping in too soon to solve our children’s problems may inadvertently steer the conversation in another direction entirely and inadvertently send the message that we can’t or don’t want to tolerate the big emotions our child is experiencing or that they shouldn’t have those big feelings in the first place.
I’ve learned (and continue to learn) through my many mis-steps that if I begin to reassure and offer suggestions about what she could do or how to handle the feelings, I am bound to miss truly hearing her, which unwittingly communicates a lack of trust in her (and my own) ability to tolerate these strong emotions of disappointment, hurt, anger and the like.
Paradoxically, if I am able to stay fully in the moment with my daughter, I am more likely to discover the real reason for her tears as she begins to feel safer and more comfortable to share and explore her feelings. I’m also more likely to have the opportunity to influence her as she finds her own solution to the problem and in the process have an opportunity to create a deeper connection with her.
I’ve learned that in the end, by listening we in fact provide the very support our child desires and the soothing we long to give.
On this occasion, there was no solution. My daughter had missed out on an award she desperately wanted and felt she had worked hard to earn. I could have given her many logical reasons why this outcome might have occurred (and maybe that discussion could come later when she is ready and more receptive) however providing logical explanations would not have connected with her disappointment. It would merely have side-stepped the expression of those feelings and likely left her feeling alone and misunderstood.
Despite neither of us being able to alter the outcome of the event that lead to these strong emotions, I’m so grateful to have the skills to listen more effectively and share these moments with my daughter. And if those feelings resurface or she experiences another disappointment (which she no doubt will as life has its fair share of them) she will know that I can and will help hold that uncomfortable, upsetting space alongside her whenever she can't manage the big feelings alone.
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This article highlights the use of Active Listening, a very important skill in conveying empathy and understanding. If you would like to learn more please get in touch via my website www.enjoyparenting.com.au , or look for a Parent Effectiveness Training instructor in your area at www.etia.org