There’s an old adage that says, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” Add to this adage the benefit of practicing a new skill consistently over time, and you get effective active listening.
Mary had just read my book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting. She even convinced her husband, Andy, to take the parenting class with her where this was the resource book. Eight year old Amy, their oldest daughter, was their “test subject” in practicing the parenting tool of active listening.
“Mommy, I don’t get this times table stuff. Can you help me?” she asked one night while doing her homework. Mary put up her book and went to Amy’s bedroom.
“What don’t you get, dear?” she asked. “Everything. Math is dumb,” Amy threw her homework down and sprawled across her bed, covering her head under her pillow.
Mary sat on Amy’s bed beside her distraught daughter and concluded, “Well, that’s not going to get your homework done. Let’s try again.”
Amy groused, “Leave me alone,” as she recovered her head with her pillow.
Mary sighed and paused. She reached over to gently rub Amy’s back and spoke softly, “Well, sweetheart, I guess I just blew that, huh?” Amy uncovered her head from the pillow and turned on her elbow, looking puzzled at her mom’s comment.
Mary cradled her daughter’s cheek with her palm. “You know, darling, your dad and I are taking this class to help us try to better be there for you guys.” She paused and continued, “I think I just blew a chance to active listen your feelings. Can I try again?”
Amy nodded and folded herself into her mom’s arms. Mary thought for a moment and said, “You’re really frustrated that the times table is hard to understand, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, and it’s not fair,” Amy pouted.
“You’re not sure how to go about trying to get it right?”
“No, it’s too hard.”
“Okay, I have some thoughts that might help you get it right. Do you want to hear them?”
Amy eagerly agreed and the two of them tackled the homework together, with Mary guiding her daughter’s efforts.
My dad used to always tell me, if at first you don’t succeed, try, and try again. Good counsel, especially for your efforts to active listen your children. Kids are very forgiving if you are sincere with your efforts, and if you include them in the process.
After Amy successfully finished her times table homework with mom’s guidance, Mary asked, “So, how did I do with active listening your feelings? You know, my bossing you around just pulled you further away from me. When I active listened, was it more helpful to you?”
It’s okay doing this debriefing after a conversation with your child. Their feedback will help you in your skill-building. If it doesn’t go well the first time, back up, take a breath, and try again. You are learning something new, so practice, and give it time. In doing so, you are providing a teachable moment for both you and your child.
The Flip Side of Teachable Moments
In my book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, I spend a lot of time encouraging parents to create teachable moments for your kids. Such moments are generally an “aha” moment for your child, you know, when they get it. It’s new information they acquire from you or from the circumstances, a life lesson, if you will.
There are three kinds of teachable moments. The most fun ones come when there is no problem. You are sharing a magic moment with your child and both of you are the better for it.
Jim and Jason are riding in the car and it begins to snow. Six year old Jason is fascinated by the snowflakes hitting the windshield. “Wow! There are like a million of them, Dad.”
Jim glances over to his transfixed son. “That’s right, son, and each is different from the others. Each is a unique creation from God.”
Jason cocks his head as he looks back at his dad. Dad continues, “That’s what snowflakes and humans have in common. Each is created individually. Each is unique. Each is from God.” Jason paused for just a moment, and then turned again to look at the snowflakes outside. A spontaneous teachable moment.
After getting back from the store, Jim gets Jason started on his homework. While getting supper ready, he hears Jason erupt, “Arrgh. This math is stupid,” and Jason swipes his book and math problem sheet off his desk.
Jim turns the heat down on the frying pan and finds Jason in his bedroom. “Homework kicking your butt?” He walks to his son’s side and puts a comforting arm around him.
“I can’t do it,” Jason screams, “and you can’t make me.” If his dad chooses power, he might be offended by Jason’s show of disrespect and lose a teachable moment. Instead, he chooses empathy and active listens Jason’s feelings.
“Wow! You’re really upset. It’s hard when you are learning something new and it doesn’t come to you naturally.” Jason noticeably calms down and slumps his shoulders. Dad continues, “I’ve got some ideas for you. Do you want to hear them?” Another teachable moment evolves from his calming his son down and getting back to task.
The third kind of teachable moment is rarely acknowledged. These occur not from circumstances and not from when your child has a problem. These occur when you have a problem with your child.
After Jason and his dad figure out his homework and he finishes it, his 4 year old sister comes into his room. “Get out, Emily. I don’t want you here in my room,” he shouts, and then pushes her down. Emily’s cries bring Jim running. Her dad scoops her up and stares down his son.
While comforting his daughter, Jim asks Jason, “Care to explain?”
“She was bothering me,” Jason countered. Jim paused to collect his thoughts and chose this to be another teachable moment for Jason.
“So, Emily was bothering you and you chose to shout at her and push her down.” Jim let Emily down and directed her to go play in her room and that he would be there shortly.
“Son, this isn’t like you. What else is going on?” Jason expected to be yelled at but puzzled instead. He began to explain his actions, while his dad active listened. When Jason was finished, dad asked, “Could there be other ways you could have handled your feelings better?”
Jason fell silent. Dad added, “Tell you what. Just climb on your bed for a while and lay there. No toys, no books, no electronics. I want you to think about other ways you could have handled your feelings and how you could have avoided hurting your sister. I’m going to tend to Emily and I’ll be back in a while to hear what you’ve come up with.”
While magic times and calming times are two sources of teachable moments with your child, confronting times is the flip side of teachable moments. All promote healthy relationship and creative problem-solving.
Many years ago, my 8 year old daughter was acting out and I sent her to her room. I don’t remember the details. Sometime later I was doing laundry in the basement. I had not processed Rachel’s time-out with her and she had not been let out of her room. Nonetheless, she made her way down to where I was doing laundry. Silently, she floated a paper airplane from the doorway to me, and then ran quickly back upstairs. There were markings on the plane, so I unfolded it. Rachel had written, “I hate you.”
Wow! I was crestfallen, heartbroken, and stunned. I finished my load of laundry, giving me time to think about how to handle this. I went upstairs to her room. She was pretending to be asleep on her bed. I went to her side, placed the airplane on the bed and said, “You dropped this.” I started to leave her room, but Rachel bounded out of her bed, sobbing, and ran to hug me.
“Daddy, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I was mad. Please forgive me.”
I folded her into my arms for a big hug and walked her back to her bed. We talked and worked it all out.
Looking back, apparently, I had sent my little girl to her room without adequate active listening and context. She felt unheard and schemed to float her feelings to me on the paper airplane to get my attention. It worked!
As we talked afterwards in her room, she recounted her perspective. I said, “I understand your anger, but what else were you feeling?”
Anger is funny like that. About 98% of the time, anger is secondary to a more primary feeling. Because anger is the most socially accepted negative feeling we have, we use it to cover unheard, frustrated, embarrassed, guilty, worried, and a host of other feelings. Only about 2% of the time is anger the primary feeling. Another way to tag it would be “righteous indignation.” We’re mad because something is just not right. Think a young mother yelling at her toddler in the grocery story because he’s grabbing at things. Think any instance of child neglect, abuse, abandonment. Mostly, righteous indignation occurs when there is a power differential and the victim is helpless.
So, I active listened, validating Rachel’s anger, but asking also, “what else are you feeling?” During the course of our talk, I saw her emotional fever going down. She then could accept my parenting perspective in correcting her behavior, and I helped her talk about ways she could avoid future such difficulties.
For a relationship-building teachable moment with your child, acknowledge her anger, but then find the primary feelings behind the anger by asking, “What else is going on?”
Robert came crashing through the kitchen door and ran through to the family room, where his mom was watching TV while folding laundry.
“Mama, can I go with Adam to the skateboard park? A bunch of us are meeting up there.”
Jodie stopped her folding, paused, and said, “Nope.”
“What? Why not? We won’t be gone long. Adam’s mom can take us. Pleeease,” he begged.
“Robert, I don’t like Adam, and his mom has a sketchy past before she was married. Find someone else to play with.”
“Aww, man, you never let me do anything,” Robert groused before turning on his heel and slamming the door as he stomped outside.
Good parenting is about making good choices. Jodie’s choice was hers to make, but was it a good one? an informed one? Likely not. Had she met Adam? Had she talked to his mom recently? Robert was basically a good kid, good grades, no outstanding warrants (lol). So why did she shut his request down?
Obviously, Jodie was trying to protect her son from possible harm, but at what cost? She’ll likely get the silent treatment from her son for a while. Jodie chose power over relationship with Robert, at least this time.
Kids often try to unconsciously manipulate their parents by coming up with urgent requests at the last moment. Jodie’s first bad choice was responding directly to her son’s request at all. She would have promoted a teachable moment and gotten more information on which to respond by saying something like, “Hold on, son. Take a breath. Give me some details so I can make a good decision.”
She then could have guided Adam through rational decision-making, where he might change his behavior or at least be more informed about the request he was making. Jodie’s not liking Adam at all is really not a part of the equation. Friendships are a human right, not a parental right. Choosing your child’s friends can lead to emotional distance from your child and subterfuge, where he ends up going behind your back. Helping your child make wise decisions, and then being there to catch him if/when he falls, is effective parenting.
My daughter had such a friendship dilemma when she was a teen. After our talking through her needs and feelings about this girl, I told her that she could have a positive influence over her friend, but, the friend could have a negative influence over her. Rachel tested the waters, but the friendship was short-lived.
Can you choose your child’s friends? No, not without risk you your relationship with your child. You can influence his choices by active listening and giving him wise counsel. The end result is a teachable moment from which you both benefit.
Okay, I admit it. I’m a Star Trek nut. Never had the series theme song as my ringtone, but I do like the lead-in…Space, the final frontier. For teens, having space and learning how to navigate it well, is their final frontier, on the boundary between adolescence and adulthood.
At 16, Alan was, well, Alan. He is tall, lanky, not particularly social nor athletic. He’s a computer gamer and he spends a lot of time in his bedroom watching YouTube videos and playing RPG’s with his friends. His role-playing friends are on-line. Each has the others back in the war games they play. Alan has only one friend in real life, his next door neighbor, Tommy, and they’ve known each other since they moved into the neighborhood when Tommy was 3 years old.
Alan is a B/C student, doing well in computer, math, and technology classes at school, not so well in English and history classes. His thumbs fly when he is texting, of course using the obligatory texting, emoji-laden short hand, but it is hard for him to turn in essay questions, book reports, or even stories that capture his imagination and gaming expertise. His teachers have tried everything to help motivate Alan to succeed in school.
So, the million dollar question. Is Alan’s story normal? Typical for his age group? As his parent, how do you check this out? How do you help him navigate to adulthood and successful, responsible, independent living?
Alan certainly wants his space, his own cocoon in his room. That, in and of itself is normal. Teens do these kinds of things on their journey of finding themselves. Establishing an individual identity is the developmental goal of adolescence. However, we all, also by nature, are social animals. Most folks have 1 or 2 best friends, with whom each is the other’s confidante, and a social network of 6 to 8 people, 2 or 4 couples as adults, with whom they frequently hang out.
To help the Alans of the world navigate adolescence to adulthood, several points come to mind. First, respect his need for space, but with some conditions. He must make an effort to emerge from his room for meals with the family, for school, and for other required appointments. Second, he must attend to responsibilities, such as homework, chores, errands and the like, before melting into his “space.”
Third, he must be willing to share his feelings with you at some level. Remember, kids don’t answer essay questions very well. So, when you get a shoulder shrug, look away, or silence in response, make your essay question a multiple choice question. You know your teen well enough to likely come up with a topic or area that’s troubling him. Use your active listening to help him flesh out his feelings and be available, on his request, to troubleshoot and advise.
Wanting space is not the teen problem. That’s normal. If they use that space to hole up, withdraw from social/family interaction, and push people away, then it’s a problem. With your kind assurance, healthy confrontation, and loving active listening, such problems can become teachable moments.
“But I want it,” little 3 yr. old Andy demanded, stomping his feet for emphasis. “Gimme right now.”
“That’s enough, young man,” huffed his mom, with hands on hips. “What part of ‘no’ didn’t you understand?”
Andy darted past his mom in the kitchen, sweeping loose objects off the kitchen table as he went. He screamed, running through the house, catching his breath only to declare loudly, “You’re so mean.”… “You’re not my mommy.”… “I don’t love you anymore.”
Andy’s behavior is unacceptable, and he is out of control. Mom pulled the power and authority card, but this time to no avail. Now what do you do?
Even in the most stable, best of homes and environments, tantrum behavior from some children is inevitable. Sometimes it is embarrassing, especially when thrown with company around or in a public place, like the supermarket. Always, it is challenging when you child is demonstrating out-of-control behavior. When your power and authority falls flat, shift your focus from your authority to his feelings. Active listening is the go-to tool whenever your child demonstrates an emotional fever. Tantrum behavior counts.
Sometimes, thankfully rarely, some children up the ante by demonstrating safety or property issues. If they are in danger of harming themselves, you, or others, and if they start randomly throwing and breaking things, you might use what’s called a nurturing/holding procedure, or NHP.
The NHP is a physical restraint of your child against his will, with your assurance that you will only control him until he can control himself. Get ready. Kids will resist and attempt to get loose or turn on you by biting, kicking, pinching, and the like.
Hold him from behind, with your legs wrapped around his and your arms covering his. Keep your head back, to avoid his head-butting you. As calmly and with soothing voice as possible, tell him, “Sweetheart, I’m so sorry you are having such a bad time. Right now, you can’t control yourself. Ya know what? I’m going to continue controlling you so that you don’t hurt yourself, me, others, or break things. I love you so much that I’m going to do this for you as long as I need to. As soon as you show me you’ve calmed down and regained your control, I’ll let you go.
When your child realizes he can’t get loose, and you mean what you say, he will calm himself down. As you see measures of this, acknowledge them with assurances. Often, when this norm is established, all parents need to do subsequently is ask, “Now, Andy, do I need to hold you tight again?” Their memory kicks in and they calm down. After calming himself down, even a tantrum can become a teachable moment.
Is there any time during the day more important for kids than bedtime? I don’t think so. Actually, it’s not a time, but a process. It’s a one-on-one with a parent and parents can take turns. It’s a special time, with each child in the family having a separate, designated bed time. In family life, it’s a settle down time.
“Okay, sweetheart, at the end of this show, turn off the television and let’s get started going to bed.” Mom prompted 8 year old Bethany, giving her lead time to make the transition.
“But, mama, what about…?” Bethany began to protest, but her mom cut her off. “Uh, uh, uh. Don’t do this, darlin’. You know the rules.”
“Yes, Mama.” Bethany turned her attention back to the t.v. to squeeze every ounce out of her day before going to bed.
Well intentioned parents teach their children early to put themselves to bed. What??? And give up such quality time with your child?
Other parents let their child play, irritate their brother, watch t.v., or game on their iPad or computer until the very last minute. Why allow a child to ramp up right before trying to go to sleep?
Other parents tolerate an abundance of stall tactics from children who don’t want to go to sleep.
Settle down time with your child is a precious gift, both from you to her, but also from her to you. With both my kids as they grew up and now with my grandkids when I’m called to duty, I try to allow up to 30 minutes of settle down time with each child. That’s time for talking about our days, active listening, telling or reading stories, being playful and funny.
As settle down time is closing, especially if I notice my child stalling, I shift to a more proactive focus. With preschoolers, I talk about the snuggle bunny who helps children be still and be silent. Even hyperactive kids will fall asleep within 3 minutes if they are still and silent. My snuggle bunny is a glistening white bunny who likes to snuggle next to the small of your back. However, he will only stay there if you are completely still and silent. You can feel a warmth there that tells you he is there, but if you try to look, he will scoot away and you will never see him. What is settle down time? It’ time for T L C – talking, listening, and cuddling.
Crash! Mom heard to sound coming from her 13 year old daughter’s room. “Now what,” she muttered as she dried her hands before leaving the dishes to make yet another kid rescue.
“Chad, look what you’ve done,” Jenny screamed at her 10 year old little brother. “Get out of my room, you jerk!” Mom hurried her pace, sensing her children coming to blows.
Sibling rivalry is only one of many daily challenges for parents of strong-willed children. It would be common for mom to storm into Jenny’s room and begin barking orders. “Jenny, don’t talk to your brother like that.” “Chad, pick up that mess. What are you doing in your sister’s room anyway?”
Unfortunately, such common occurrences will likely lead to hurt feelings, emotional distance, and continued power struggles. When you are able to trade in divisive “me against you” talk for “we and us” talk, you are on the right track.
First, without comment or criticism, separate your children in the moment. Take time to find out what happened, from each of their perspectives, using your active listening to understand the feelings behind the actions.
Second, when you sense your child’s emotional fever is going down after active listening, ask what they might have said or done differently to have achieved positive outcome.
Third, identify what each child did to add to the difficulty between them, and give each a time-out to formulate an apology to the other. Behaviorally and developmentally, the rule of thumb is to give times-out that are no longer than 2 minutes for every year of your child’s age. For Chad, at age 10, that would be 20 minutes. For Jenny, at age 13, that would be 26 minutes. In reality, such a brief time-out may serve its purpose, but also is an opportunity for you to step away, settle down, and bring reason to the conversation.
Finally, after these times-out, talk to your children together both to structure the apology/forgiveness piece and to jointly address specifics that could help avoid such encounters in the future. For example, Chad could knock before entering his sister’s room, and Jenny could make some time for her brother doing something he likes, like competing on a video game.
I don’t know any parent who can avoid those moments where they say “Uh oh. Here we go again.” However, taking these steps will turn those uh oh moments into teachable moments for your children.
A coin has two sides, heads and tails. Neither is better than the other. They are just different. However, the coin could not be without both sides. The sides make the coin. Such is a parent’s love for their child.
“My little Joey is such a angel…when he is sleeping.” Amanda sipped her coffee before continuing with her friend, Rose. “Don’t get me wrong. I love my little boy so much, but, whew, is he a handful sometimes.” Rose commiserated with her friend.
“Sometimes I just have to jerk a knot in him, you know, give him consequences for his bad choices. I feel so guilty after he gives me those soulful, puppy dog eyes when I put him in the corner.”
Rose chimed in, “Amanda, don’t beat yourself up. You’re a great mom. You listen to Joey when he’s upset and trying to get out of his punishment. But you also help him realize that he has made a bad choice and that there are consequences for his actions.”
“I know,” Amanda sighed, “but still…”
These moms love their children. They know that the parenting coin has two sides, both empathy and confrontation. With empathy, you teach your child that they have a right to their feelings, and you empower them to make good choices. With confrontation, you teach them that there are consequences to their choices that have impact both on them and on those around them. Both empathy and confrontation are required from us parents to prepare our children for their adult world.
Many children today seem to suffer from false empowerment. That is, they have a sense of entitlement with feeling of impunity. I can do what I want, with no consequences. Parents of these children tend to be permissive, wanting their children to have full and enriching experiences, with few or no limits to their actions. Such permissive parenting can lead to selfishness, lack of empathy, insecurity, and potential bullying.
In Chapter 3 of my book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, I offer that children will always test the limits. However, they do so to be sure that the limits are there. Being in charge is every child’s worst nightmare, leading to fear and anxiety.
For you, the parent, to be in charge, you need to flip a coin. Both empathy and confrontation, the two sides of your parenting coin, need to be used to help your child find their place in the world.
Amy glared at her mom and announced, “Leave me alone!” Her mom stopped in her tracks, at the edge of the door to Amy’s bedroom. As she looked, stunned, at her 12 year old daughter, she pondered, “Where has my little girl gone?”
Well, mom, your daughter Amy has begun her journey into adolescence. You know, that’s a foreign land where grown-ups are the enemy. German developmental psychologists identify Sturm Und Drang as the hallmark of adolescence. Storm and stress! As parents, we see this storm and stress and ask, “Is that my teen?”
Up until about age 10, parents are mostly the best thing ever. Our children love us and show that love in many ways. In healthy, loving families, they want to grow up to be just like mommy and daddy. Developmentally, ages 10 to 12 are the latency ages. That is, not children, but not teens. A newer term is “tweenager.” However you name it, for the parents, the jury’s out. Like others her age, Amy is beginning to find herself. The first place teens go is to not mom or dad. As children, they want to be just like mom and dad. As teens, they want to be just opposite mom and dad.
All I can encourage parents of teens to do is to just hang on. The ride will be bumpy, but the journey worth it. Be good role models and hold on to your values. Set healthy limits, stick to them, and catch your teen being good. The Sturm Und Drang of adolescence is the furnace of events within which their personal identity is forged.
Amy’s mom was just going to tell her that dinner was ready and to come to the table to eat. With Amy’s abrupt words, mom now has a choice. She could look at her daughter with sadness or anger and just silently turn around and leave her in her room. She could throw her hands up in a time-out gesture and confront her with, “Whoa! Time-out, young lady. You don’t talk to your mother that way. Get your butt downstairs for dinner.” While both of these options are warranted, neither will get to the heart of the matter. Both will just put more distance in the relationship.
Give Amy time to realize her harshness by starting with, “Excuse me?” If that prompt doesn’t generate a recognition of the line crossed, then follow with observation and active listening, such as, “Wow, Amy, this isn’t like you. What’s going on?” If you get silence or a short, curt answer to your essay question, make it a multiple choice question. You know your daughter well enough to come up with some options. She will then likely come to the table with you, even if in silent protest.
Is that my teen? Well, yes, it is, but just for now. Hang on. Keep the communication channels open, and your prickly caterpillar will one day be a beautiful, engaging butterfly.