One of the most important skills in any relationship is to listen – and to truly hear and understand what is being said. This is especially true with parents and children, as we have learned with our now adult son and daughter.
When our son was three years old, we took him to a sibling class at a local hospital in preparation for the birth of his little sister. After a presentation to the families, the children toured the newborn nursery and got to see the babies through the viewing area window. The next day, Jonathan wanted to talk about the class with Barbara. Toward the end of the conversation, he said, “Mommy, tell me again how the baby comes out.” Barbara took a deep breath and explained the birthing process in terms a three-year-old would understand. Jonathan listened intently. When she finished, Barbara was relieved that the discussion had gone well. But Jonathan thought for a moment and shook his head: “No, Mommy,” he said. “I meant – how will the baby come out? In that room with the babies, I saw a window, but I didn’t see a door!” Sometimes it helps to reframe the question first.
When a child is upset about something, careful listening becomes even more important. David studied behavioral pediatrics at the University of Virginia, where his professor and mentor, Dr. James Kavanaugh, Jr., taught his residents and fellows how to help distraught patients and their families by helping them to understand the real basis for their concerns. Dr. Kavanaugh would ask patients, “What’s the worst thing you think can happen?” and, “Who does your child remind you of?” which can reveal an assumed connection with a loved one who might have had a bad outcome from a similar illness or circumstance.
It’s important to listen, to reframe the question, to examine underlying thinking – and, sometimes, to give children the space to express themselves on their own terms. In an effort to be loving and protective, some parents become so involved with their children that it becomes difficult to get perspective on what’s really going on. During a seminar about enmeshment – the technical term for what we would now call “helicopter parenting” – Dr. Kavanaugh once asked a student to stand up, and then proceeded to give him an intense, unrelenting hug. He was physically demonstrating that a person who is enmeshed with a child does not give enough emotional space for meaningful interaction.
Dr. Kavanaugh also taught that preconceived ideas sometimes crowd out creative solutions. Our clinical team once interviewed a family in which the mother was so emotionally incapacitated that she required round-the-clock care. The family wanted the 16-year-old child to be excused from school for a full year to care for the mother, which sounded drastic and unacceptable. But Dr. Kavanaugh pointed out that it was this family’s unique solution for each sibling to take a turn caring for the mother for a full year to make it possible for her to remain at home – and the children were successful academically, besides. The approach was certainly unusual – but it worked for that particular family, so we honored it as clinicians.
Sometimes when a parent tries to talk with a teenager, the teen becomes increasingly quiet and then abruptly walks away. Many parents understandably view such behavior as rude, and assume that the teen has stopped listening. Often, though, the truth is that the teen heard exactly what was being said, but found it too intense to stay engaged in the conversation. If the teen is given a chance to collect his or her own thoughts and doesn’t get emotionally wrestled to the ground, they might just come back on their own. It could take a few minutes, or even a few days, but they will pick up the conversation again if you allow the teen to pause and reflect.
Anger likewise can be eased when parents stop to listen. There is a story about a man who squeezes his hand into a birdhouse to catch a bird. While holding on to the bird, he can’t pull his hand out of the small opening. He has to let go of the bird to free his hand. In the same way, holding on to anger can prevent you – and your child – from moving forward emotionally.
A boy was brought to a rabbi because he often said hateful things to people. The rabbi asked the boy to take a feather pillow to the top of a hill, cut it open to release the feathers, then collect the feathers again and bring the pillow back to him. The boy did as he had been instructed, but when he returned, the rabbi noted that the pillow seemed to be half full. The boy lamented that when he let the feathers out of the pillow, some blew away, impossible to retrieve. In the same way, when someone says something hurtful, the words cannot be easily taken back. It’s usually better to carefully choose your words – and to encourage your child to choose theirs – than to try to repair the damage they might otherwise have caused.
And finally – a little boy, “Sweetie Pie,” as his mother always called him – went off to his first day of school. When he came home, he was very excited about the day. His mother asked, “Sweetie Pie, what did you learn in school today?” He replied equally excitedly, “I learned my name is Peter!” Sometimes the eggs teach the chickens – and parents are wise to listen as their children do.