Listening Skills for Parents: Six Top Strategies

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS

I think we could all do with a reminder now and then, about how to really listen to our children. I would definitely include myself in that. Sometimes, my son wants to tell me about his new Nintendo switch game or most recent football match, at the most inconvenient of times. It is okay to be too busy or preoccupied sometimes, if you make space to listen at an alternative time: “I just need to finish this email, but I will be with you in 10 minutes and you can tell me all about it.” The more time you make for this type of connection, the better your relationship will be. As you may know, I believe strongly that small changes such as these can make a big difference to family lives. In the article I highlight my favourite six listening skills for parents.

The benefits of developing listening skills for parents 

Most of these sound pretty obvious when they are listed, but what child could not do with a little more of the things listed below? Good active listening skills can help a child to:

  • Feel that their thoughts and feelings matter.
  • Feel a special connection with a parent; really feel “heard” and valued and strengthen a secure attachment relationship.
  • Learn good listening themselves, by copying the skills you “model” to them. This will improve the quality of all your child’s relationships. It is essential that children develop their listening skills, because adults who do not listen (interrupt, talk about themselves more than listen to others) can be perceived as rude or self-centred and this can affect all aspects of their lives, both personal and professional.

Listening as an art form

When I was a university student, I spent 3 years as a regular volunteer with Nightline, a telephone listening service which is a bit like The Samaritans. If I remember rightly, new volunteers spent 5 days on a training course, just learning how to listen. In my fourth year, I ran the service, and became a trainer myself. Five whole days devoted to listening might sound excessive but there are so many skills involved. Here are just a few of the techniques that might come in handy.

6 Top Strategies to develop Listening Skills for Parents 

Listening sounds (mm-hm, mmm, aha, etc!)

Listening sounds show that you are following what somebody is saying, especially when it is a long story or there are lots of twists and turns. However, there is a danger of switching off, and making automatic listening sounds. Make sure you are truly listening, and vary your listening sounds. If I find myself drifting off (when another new Nintendo switch game or product is being described to me) I try to “bring myself back” to paying attention, and use a change in tone of voice or volume to show that I am now fully tuned in, even if it may sound a little over the top.

Repeating back

I’m not talking about repeating back in parrot-fashion. To show you have been giving full attention and processing what your child has said, try summarising it, or repeating it back in a slightly different way. For example… “So, it sounds like you’ve had a happy first day at school, even though you said having to read out loud in English was embarrassing because you stumbled over your words.”

The power of silence

This is one I need to work on. Silence gives the speaker a chance to collect their thoughts together and process what they have said. It gives the listener (you) a chance to consider different responses and choose the best one. Silence may allow space for your child to continue to talk after a pause, slowly working things out in their head as they go. It also ensures that your child has actually finished speaking, before you launch in with a response. Interrupting is one of the most serious listening mistakes, as it can give the speaker the impression that you are following your own agenda rather than theirs.

Silence is a technique which requires practice. Slowly lengthen your silences from a millisecond to a few seconds, and notice what happens.

Eye contact

Good face-to-face listening generally requires some eye contact. Making eye contact helps you check out the emotions that are registering on your child’s face, so that you can better adjust your response. It allows your child to see that you are focusing on them, with no distractions. Better still, it allows the child to check out your emotional response. Your (hopefully!) calm and containing reaction can also be very reassuring for them.

However… lots of eye contact is not always helpful; it depends on the topic of conversation. If your child feels ready to share something really difficult or painful with you, it can be powerful to limit your eye contact. Too much can feel too exposing for the child. Many of the deepest conversations happen on car journeys when we can’t make good use of eye contact or body language. Normally in a one-to-one conversation you would face towards someone, but when driving you cannot do this. This can somehow create a less pressured environment for talking.

Ask questions

There are many types of questions you can ask to make a child feel heard. For example, you can check your understanding of something or check that you have heard correctly.

“Do you mean that you didn’t enjoy lunchtime today because you couldn’t find your friends, or do you mean that you don’t normally enjoy lunchtimes at all?”

You could ask a question to develop the conversation further.

“I can tell that you really enjoyed the film, but what was your favourite part?”

With older children, or children who are verbally confident, you could ask them a more open-ended question:

“So, you’ve told me you are interested in conservation, but what are your views about global warming?”

Look for the EMOTION

As parents, we can’t help but make judgements sometimes. We may be proud, feeling that our child has done the right thing. Perhaps, we could  be shocked or embarrassed that they have made a poor decision. However, one of the most powerful things I have ever learned as a psychologist and parent is this:

Empathise with the emotion.

Let’s look at a couple of examples:

Amelia decides not to do any more homework this evening, because she has already spent 2 hours doing homework and she thinks it is unfair that four different teachers have set homework on the same day. You listen to her talking and you think this is a really bad idea because Amelia will get a detention. However, you explain to her that you really feel for her, and can understand her anger and resentment. You are empathising with the emotions, and showing that you are really listening to Amelia, but you are not agreeing with her decision.

Spencer tells you all about his first rehearsal for the school play. He is only eight, and goes backwards and forwards on tangents telling you about plots and characters. You do not follow much of the actual content of what Spencer is saying, but you reflect back to him how excited he sounds about the play, and how proud he seems to be a part of it.  You can adapt your facial expression and tone of voice to show that you share some of this excitement.

If you can empathise with the emotion you will also be helping your child develop “emotional literacy” – being able to identify emotions is a key aspect of this.

The great thing about improving our listening skills for parents is that there are multiple opportunities every day to practise. So what are you waiting for?!

You can find more information about listening skills in my book.

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