[See original article published here.] Mom said: “I’m struggling with my son. He teases his sister so much! He also yanks toys from his baby brother and runs away. The baby starts screaming and I tell Joseph to stop. The other day I told him: ‘I don’t want to see you do that again!’ Then I left the room. But I decided to stay behind the door and wait to see what he’d do. Sure enough, he pushed the baby down. I came in and told him, ‘Joseph, you need to stop hurting your little brother.’ He responded: ‘But mom, I didn’t see you!’”
Mom reported her relationship with her son had suffered as she was constantly saying, “No Joseph, stop that! Don’t do that!” Besides doing play therapy with Joseph, I also spent time talking to his parents reviewing and modifying their parenting skills in order to help them with the issues mentioned above. One day Mom summarized her frustration to me: “Will I ever see the end of my rainbow?”
Parents can only wish they could easily find the pot of gold for their children to behave more appropriately. They try to find the answers everywhere – articles, books, blogs, etc. Parents often say: “We’ve tried everything and nothing seems to work for our kid!”
No single thing works for every child, and emotional and mental challenges can make some techniques ineffective. Still, parents say that behavior management skills don’t get the results they expect, and at best only work temporarily.
This is not the magical answer but is one of the most important skills taught by experts when it comes to relationships and communication. When used appropriately, parents often discover it can solve about 50% of the problems.
When parents learn reflective listening skills, they become their children’s emotional coaches. When they practice enough, they find they are able to experience more cooperation and peace in their home.
Why It’s Important
What was it like for you the last time you had a hectic day and couldn’t wait to tell a spouse, best friend, or parent about it? Did they discount what you said? Did they say something like: “Oh, that’s nothing, get over it, something worse happened to me.” They then proceeded to tell you about their miserable day and left you hanging. How did you feel afterwards? Did they try to solve your problem? Did you feel misunderstood and invalidated? When was the last time someone listened to you emphatically and you felt better afterwards?
Just as adults need someone to listen to them and validate what they say, adolescents and children do too!
I usually encourage parents to practice their reflective listening when they play with their children. They are advised to pay 100% attention to what their children say. They need to acknowledge their feelings, pay attention to their voice intonation and non-verbal cues. In their own words they can reflect back their child’s words and feelings based on their mindful observation. When parents use reflective listening, their children feel understood and this may be the only thing they need at that time.
Accept their feelings
One day Joseph came home from school looking downtrodden. He told his mom that his best friend had moved away. He said, “I don’t have any friends!” His mom responded: “Oh Joseph, you have friends! You have me and your dad, your sister, and your little brother. You can make new friends. It will be okay.”
It’s difficult to see our children suffer, so we quickly want to solve their problem. Trying to make it okay for them is basically denying their feelings. Sometimes we are overwhelmed by our own problems and feel vulnerable. Thus, we ignore what our children need because we don’t want to deal with the real situation. A reflective response requires more attention and less words:
“You didn’t have a good day. You are feeling lonely.” It’s an empathic response and this may have been all Joseph needed to hear.
Think before reacting
Mom was always correcting Joseph and telling him “No!” and “Stop it.” She learned that before reacting, she could practice reflective listening and say, “Joseph, I know it’s so hard for you to share with Jimmy. You want to play with his toys all the time.” Mom learned to say “No” less frequently. It has been said that before parents say “No” to their children, they need to provide five positive statements. In this case, acknowledging his feelings in five different ways would be a good start.
Validate their feelings
Joseph came running to his mom complaining that his sister had hit him. Mom said, “You were probably teasing her, weren’t you?”
That sounds reasonable, knowing he is a teaser. However, a reflective answer would be, “You are pretty upset because Sister hit you.” Then mom could pause and wait to hear what else he would say. She can continue to validate his feelings.
It’s the appetizer in the parenting menu
I usually tell parents that reflective listening is the first thing they need to do before anything else. There are lessons to teach and behavior to correct. However, all those will go more smoothly when we first remember to validate and acknowledge our children’s feelings by using reflective listening.
When using this skill, we become better communicators. Our children need to know that we hear, understand, and care about them. Reflective listening won’t solve everything, but it will strengthen our relationship with our children — which is half the battle!
Perhaps the end of your rainbow is closer than you think…