How do we help when our children have problems? When my daughter was 2 years old, she started having intense tantrums, often several times a day. My husband and I saw her as a ticking time bomb that could explode at any moment. The anxiety and stress were getting to me. How to cope? I had to learn to ground myself and to listen.
How does listening heal?
Start with groundedness and self-compassion.
First, I had to deal with my stress response. Could I keep my cool in the face of her intensity? Oftentimes, the answer was no. So I had to “get gone” to take care of my anger. Yelling only makes a hard situation worse, so getting some space from the situation to calm down helped. It didn’t feel great to leave her when she was upset, but it was better than erupting into a mommy tantrum. I learned that when your child is in a safe place, sometimes temporarily leaving can be the more skillful choice.
When I was able to stay calm, I had yet another problem. The words I said triggered a whole other round of toddler screaming! Although mindfulness was helping me calm down and stay present, it turned out that I had inherited a way of speaking that triggered resistance in my daughter. What I said actually made things worse, not better, but I didn’t know how to communicate more skillfully. So I set out to learn. I learned communication tools that helped to transform my daughter’s outright resistance into willing cooperation.
A caveat: As you learn these more effective ways of communicating with your child, remember to practice self-compassion and let go of self-judgment. I know firsthand how frustrating it is to realize that the way you’ve been communicating could be damaging your relationship. Remember your mindfulness foundation. Your mindfulness practice will give you the space and clarity you need to make changes with a healthier, less judgmental attitude. Shame and blame are not good teachers—not for your child and not for you. Bring compassion to your learning, and remember that you are not alone—we all struggle.
Listen to cultivate connection.
Relationships are built on connection, and connection is developed through our interactions—through communication. Fundamentally, we all want to be seen and heard, especially in our closest relationships. Unfortunately, it’s often in our closest relationships—including with our children—that we tend to withdraw our attention. It might be because we are on autopilot or in “doing” mode, getting things done, or on our way out the door. Or maybe it’s the phone in our hands. So we only listen with a tiny fraction of our attention. That’s why your mindfulness meditation is a foundational practice. Children need us to really be there—body, mind, and spirit—not just telling them to hurry up and put on their shoes. As Thich Nhat Hanh said during a retreat I attended in 2003, “When you love someone, the best thing you can offer is your presence.
How can you love if you are not there?”
Every time your child talks to you, he wants to make a connection. And every time he wants to connect, think of the act as a bell of mindfulness—a reminder to pause and listen with all of your attention. To turn the phone off, put it down, and practice being fully present with your child. Or to tell him that you aren’t able to listen right now.
When we practice listening mindfully—with our focused, nonjudgmental attention—we can truly understand what is going on for our children. When we listen like that, our children feel seen and heard.
Listening attentively is the gold standard for helping others when they have a problem. It helps them clarify and resolve their problem through talking it out. Sometimes listening is all it takes to find a solution! We’ve shown that we’re really present, so our kids feel understood. They want us to accept them exactly as they are, uncomfortable feelings and all. To feel accepted is to feel loved, which heals many problems.
If we are listening to their problem with compassion, it does not mean that we condone their choices. Instead, it simply demonstrates that we accept them and their feelings (not necessarily their behavior).
When your child has a problem, listening with your full attention can be like magic. When you do this, you communicate so much without ever saying a word. Try saying less and listening more this week!
A 5-step practice for mindful listening.
Make it a practice to stop talking and simply listen with your full attention. Think of it as a mindfulness practice, so that you can be fully present when your child is talking to you.
- What are some ways to be fully present? Put the phone and other distractions away so that you are not tempted to check them.
- After putting away intrusions, focus your body language toward your child. Turn your body in her direction and shift your gaze toward her. If she is sharing something uncomfortable, she may not want to make eye contact, and that’s OK. Sit side by side.
- Use your mindfulness skills to notice when your mind is wandering into the past or into the future, is judging, or is planning a response. Instead, practice to simply be still and listen to what your child is saying. What does your child want? What happened? What is she feeling?
- Simply listening attentively, with your mind and body focused on your child, will forge a stronger connection. Give it a try and find out how helpful you can be without even uttering a word!
- Taking a week or so to focus on less speaking and more listening will shift things for your relationship. You’ll find yourself interrupting the old habit of solving everything and instead being more observant and curious. Best of all, your child will be able to feel the difference.