Active listening: What is it and how can it improve your relationship with your child?

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If your child acts in a way that is defiant, closed-off, or aggressive, then they may benefit from active listening. Sometimes it can be very confusing if they refuse to open up and verbally communicate what's wrong, but it could be down to them not feeling as though their emotions and thoughts are valued.

That's not to say that anyone's to blame - you could be an amazing parent, but you might still be missing out on a small gesture that lets your little one know that they're being listened to properly.

There are so many photos of Prince William kneeling or squatting when he speaks to Prince George, and experts say that it's this body language which shows that he is giving George his full attention. By getting down to his son's level, facing him and looking at him, he is 'actively listening' to whatever his son may be saying, and enabling full engagement. It's not always an appropriate stance, however - as proved at Trooping the Colour in 2016, when the Queen could be seen telling William to stand up as he crouched down by his son!

What is active listening?

The Center for Parenting Education describes active listening as 'the single most important skill you can have in your parenting 'toolbelt''. It's ‘a specific form of communication that lets another person know that you are 'with them'; aware of what they are saying, accepting of their perspective, and appreciative of their situation.'

With normal, passive listening, we listen just to hear the content. Active listening requires effort; you need to pay attention to how and what is being told to you, and interpret body language, attitude and emotion.

In other words, active listening is simply listening to your child in a way that allows full understanding. Rather than listening in order to reply, active listening involves you communicating to your child the message that they have your undivided attention and that you are listening and understanding everything that they are saying and showing to you.

This technique can be applied to toddlers, children, teenagers, and even adults - they're never too old to be listened to! Whether it's your 3-year-old complaining that his sister stole his favourite toy, or your 17-year-old worrying about their friends leaving them out, active listening is worth giving a try.

How can you try active listening with your child?

Listen to more than their words

Body language, tone of voice and attitude can sometimes point towards the opposite of what your child is saying. For example, if your teenager is talking about a bad mark in a test as though they don't really care, but they're twiddling their fingers or are trying not to make eye contact with you, they could be seriously upset or worried but feel embarrassed to say that to you explicitly.

Give them as much attention as you can

While in conversation, look directly at your child when they're speaking. Try and avoid being distracted by other things, such as another one of your kids making noise or your phone buzzing. If it's an emergency, tell your child that what they're saying is important to you and that you'll talk about it more once you've dealt with the other situation.

Send the right signals

We're not the only ones doing the inspecting - our kids also look out for signs to measure how much we're actually listening to them. It's important to communicate the right message, so making eye contact, opening up your posture (no folded arms or legs), leaning towards them and getting down to their level by sitting next to them or kneeling like Prince William!

Communicate your understanding

It's important to show that you've taken on what your child has said, and understand it completely. If they're complaining that you won't let them go to the cinema with their friends, answer with, ‘What I am hearing you say is that you want a chance to spend time with your friends and not being able to frustrates you.' Then, the discussion can move forward and you both can reach a solution.

Rather than assume they're trying to get you to change your mind, and therefore cut them off, try and avoid jumping to conclusions. Allowing them to fully engage and discuss with you is important for their development and your relationship.

The benefits of active listening


Active listening builds a sense of trust, support and empathy between parent and child. You can develop effective patterns of communication with your child from an early age, which will be an important base of your relationship once they turn into teenagers and tend to close off from you more.

Freedom of expression

Kids are said to feel less controlled by their parents, and more supported through active listening. Even though it seems like your responsibility as a parent to educate and lecture your kids on what you've learned through your life experience, sometimes it can be more beneficial to restrain yourself from bringing your own opinion into discussions and simply listen and interpret.

They'll respect you more

In time, children could become more open to hearing your opinion because you haven't imposed it on them over and over again, meaning they don't associate your opinion as overshadowing theirs and feel more free to express themselves.

Slower conversations = greater confidence

Just as we do, children gain a lot by working things out as they speak. By allowing them to have the space to speak about anything, the conversation will slow down as they become the main contributor.

Often in discussions, when two or more people are speaking a lot, it becomes almost like a competition of who can get out what they need to say the most. By avoiding this, your child can develop their self-confidence and independence by reaching their own conclusions through extended speech, without you having to spell it out for them all the time.

Slower conversations can also lower your child's stress levels, as they often require more time than we do to process their emotions and thoughts, and need to think a bit harder to express themselves.

Are there any drawbacks?

According to the CPE, parents can find active listening quite difficult for different reasons:
-'Having your own agendas for how you want situations resolved'
- Feeling 'uncomfortable when your children are experiencing something unpleasant'
- Having difficulty 'separating your feelings from theirs'

The main drawback is parents having to try and adjust to this method, as it requires effort to get it tailored to you and your family's needs. Time is also an issue, as this practice can often be more time-consuming than trying to wrap up the conversation as quickly as possible.

The CPE also says active listening also isn't appropriate in certain situations:
- When your child needs information from you like 'when will dinner be ready?'
- If they need discipline, for example, if they're about to hit their sibling!
- When they really don't seem like they want to talk - instead say 'I'm here whenever you want to talk to me.'
- If you're feeling too exhausted or overwhelmed - 'don't force yourself. It's better to be honest that you're too tired to give full attention than to be distracted and have them misinterpret your response as a lack of caring.'

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What are your thoughts on active listening? Would you be interested in giving it a go? Let us know in the comments below...

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