When my daughter was a preschooler, she did something mean to her brother, I don’t remember what. Anyway, I sent her to her room as a consequence. She stomped off, got to her bedroom doorway and turned on her heels. She folded her arms and stated emphatically, “You’re the one who is mean. I don’t love you anymore.” She then slammed her bedroom door as I started to come toward her.
Her actions presented me with a crossroads in our relationship. I could show her who’s the boss in my house. I could give her empathy. I could active listen. How I responded set the tone for the emotional intimacy of our father/daughter relationship.
If I wanted to make sure she knew I was the boss of her, I would say such things as, “Get rid of the attitude, young lady.” “Keep it up and you’ll be grounded twice as long.” “How dare you talk to me that way! Come here, and I’ll give you something to cry about.”
Such shaming, power plays, and threats secure my status as the boss, but at the risk of any meaningful relationship with my daughter. The result is her fearing me, shutting me out, and learning that feelings are bad to have.
If I wanted to give her empathy, I could have opened her slammed door and stood in the doorway, pausing to gather my thoughts. I might say, “Being punished is not fun, huh?” “Boy, you sure told me.” “I see. When you feel hurt, you want to hurt back.”
Empathy is a step in the right direction. It’s about trying to live in the other’s shoes for a moment, trying to understand where they are coming from. However, empathy is more about linking feelings and behavior, conveying “I get what you are thinking and feeling.”
Active listening, however, is the gold standard of emotionally intimate relationships. When I active listen, I am choosing relationship over power. My goal is helping my daughter lower her emotional fever, recognizing that her harsh words are only symptoms, not the problem. I could say such things as, “Wow, you’re really upset right now.” “You think I’m being unfair?” Empathy and active listening are cousins in the effective communication world, but empathy is likely to be more passive. Active listening is more engaging and, well, active.
As parents, we want our children to feel better, but sometimes it’s best to just let them sit with their feelings, explore them, have them in the moment. This is where mindful parenting and active listening intersect. When their emotional fever is high and there is a problem, be careful not to judge, criticize, or solve their problem for them. Just be with them, which is empathy, and help them understand their feelings, which is active listening.
We all breathe, just to stay alive. Few of us know how we breathe. Fewer still have had the panicky feeling of not being able to catch your breath. In healthy families, active listening is like a needed breath of fresh air in your relationship with your child. Be there for your kids.