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To Listen to the True Meaning of A Child’s Words

Parents Need to Use Their Ears, Eyes and Heart

“If raising a child takes a hundred years, one will have worries during ninety-nine of those years” is a well-known Chinese proverb. All parents care for their children, but do many of us do it with the right approach? Besides providing verbal guidance and setting good examples, have you paid attention to your child’s thoughts and views? Listening attentively to others is the first step of effective communication and applies to all regardless of age.

Attentive listening means to pay attention to what others have said. When toddlers start to speak, their parents often pay full attention to avoid missing out on a word they say. As a child gets older, parents may inevitably have less time or are less patient with them due to other commitments. Hence, when the child cries or fusses, the parents may think he or she is throwing a tantrum or is disobedient. But, do the parents get the real message that the child is trying to express?

Guide Children In Expressing Themselves, Help Them Learn to Manage Emotions

“Don’t cry! Stop crying! There is no point in being sad! Who will want to cry over trivial things like this and look ugly?!” Have you ever spoken these words to a crying child? The crying child is feeling sad at that moment and wishes to express the sadness through crying but these words can make the child be mistaken that he or she is in the wrong. As a result, causes him or her to hide their feelings. We need to be aware that a child has to express his or her emotions in order to address them appropriately. Being unable to do so can affect a child’s development, causing him or her to have difficulties regulating negative emotions later on in life.

Parents may resist their child’s cries or are concerned about being embarrassed by them. By listening attentively, rather than shunning or reacting negatively to their cries or fuss, parents can help their child express and overcome his or her sadness, as well as help him or her learn to manage emotions. “When a child wants to cry or is crying, parents can say ‘Are you sad? Cry if you wish to do so! It is fine to cry when you feel sad. Let us talk about why you are feeling sad. What causes you to feel so sad? Do you feel better now after talking about it? We can think of a way to work this out together after crying, ok?’ These words can guide a child into saying what is upsetting him or her. Parents only have to listen attentively or repeat some of the words that the child has said. Repeating the spoken words let the child feels that he or she has been heard and acknowledged. This action helps them overcome sadness and learn how to manage negative thoughts.”

Clear Your Mind and Be a Good Listener

There is a case of a young man, over 20 years old, who had setbacks in his studies. As a result, he kept away from his peers and spent his time in his dark bedroom playing computer games, even refusing to let his parents in to clean. The young man was also unwilling to look for a job. As a result, his mother sought coaching services from a counsellor to get help. The counsellor related: “The young man always says ‘You are annoying!’ to both his parents. We hope that the mother listens attentively during her conversation with her son to identify the underlying messages that he is relaying. He may be subtly expressing that he is afraid to face his failures. Or, he views each job interview as a failure. It is also possible that he is afraid of being despised by his friends,  or he is unwilling to face the pressures from society. Many parents have inherent notions of what their child “should” do: they should look for a job, should wake up early and not play computer games, etc. Putting aside these inherent beliefs can help parents be more attuned to what their child is trying to express. We suggest that parents find a suitable time to have one-to-one conversations with their child. Put aside any preconceived notions. Listen attentively to understand the child’s fears, likes, dislikes, his or her experiences, and what he or she is struggling with. Also, when the child says “annoying!”, find out what exactly does it mean. Attentive listening enables parents to help their child gets some breathing “space”, and clears their doubts and anxiety with just one or two conversations. Try to understand the child’s difficulties and face the challenges together with him or her.

(Note: The case study has been modified for privacy purposes)

Listen With Our Eyes, Ears and Heart

  1. Pre-schoolers cannot express their emotions with words, they rely more on body language such as stomping their feet. Parents can guide them, narrow down possibilities, observe their child’s bodily reactions and facial expressions, and thereafter mindfully guess the meanings of the reactions and expressions. Or, parents can use drawings or dolls with different expressions to help the child expresses his or her emotions. 
  2. When listening attentively to a child, it is best to sit down or squat so that parents can look at the child at eye-level to avoid giving him or her an impression of superiority.
  3. Hug the child when appropriate while listening to calm him or her down, and to show you acknowledge what he or she says.
  4. If parents have any preexisting unresolved anger, it is best to address it first by consulting a counsellor.

The Companions
Dr. Vinci Cheung
Counsellor