Really listening to your child

My mantra has become all behaviour is communication. When your young child has a meltdown they are usually saying I am tired, I am hungry, I am bored. They don't always have the language to tell us so we have to give it to them.

The other interesting thing is that behind this behaviour is there is some unresolved emotion. Finding what that is in a small child is often linked to physiological needs but with a teenage it can be a much harder thing to unpack. The most often phrase I hear from teenagers is "My parents/teachers don't listen to me" We would argue that because of course we listen to them! So why do they think we don't?

Imagine your child comes home from school and says something like “Mr X is a dickhead” I know my impulse would be to correct the language, correct the attitude, correct the criticism. But stop for a moment and think, “What is my child actually saying to me.” It sounds like frustration, anger and annoyance. Ask instead “Why do you say that?” Let them tell you about their frustration and don’t interrupt. Don’t offer a solution unless they ask for one. Just by not correcting them, not trying to solve it for them, and letting them let off steam they will feel like you actually listened to them.


It is very easy when 'listening' to your adolescent to be planning your answer in your head and wait for them to stop so that you can talk- usually to correct them or give them the solution. We know we justify that by thinking: we want our child to be the best person they can but that's not what they hear. Are you listening or just waiting to talk? Watch your body language as it can speak volumes. Standing with your arms crossed, checking your phone, looking around the room, eye-rolls, furrowed brows and a scrunched-up face, these can all be signs that you are not really listening and sighing maybe showing signs of impatience. Try instead to sometimes nodding along, leaning in and trying to keep your expression neutral. You don’t have to agree with everything your child says, but be aware that your body language may be sending an unintended message.

What if your child tells you something you don't want to hear? I would respond by saying that if they are actually trusting you with something uncomfortable for you both, then you are making progress.

What if they sound like they are making a list of your faults and failings? Okay- hurtful! But maybe helpful. What is the emotion behind the list of their concerns. Are they frustrated by something? Are they feeling unheard? Are they feeling they don't have your attention often enough?

What if they make a list of demands? Teens often feel that you are too tough and everyone else's parents would let them do it! Negotiate- staying out on week nights- not negotiable. Weekends- negotiable. Age of drinking- hmmm, tricky as they will usually find a way to get alcohol anyway. Maybe a conversation around drinking safely? Not to share drinks, not to take drinks from someone they don't know, always stay with friends when drinking, having someone being a sober friend so they can look after the others when they get too drunk. Knowing they can talk to you honestly about what it is like in reality will make them more open to talking to you.

The way they dress, make up, hair, Okay - they are trying to express themselves so if they want shaved hair, make up, long hair, dyed hair, and any style of dress they choose- not really your business. Clothes do not maketh the man- how they present on the outside may be a reflection of how they feel about themselves, it may be a statement or maybe they just want to piss you off. Suck it up. The less you comment on their style negatively the better it is for all of you. Notice them, comment positively and don't make a big deal of it.

Sex - Who wants to think about their child being sexual???? No one ever. But they will at some time in their life more than likely become sexual. So prepare yourself. I never heard anything about sex from my parents- I heard lots of myths and legends from friends which was just enough to give me an idea of the mechanics of sex. I didn't talk to my own children enough about sex and I think the thing to remember here is that talking to them about healthy relationships and keeping themselves safe is an important part of the conversation. The big thing when I was a teen was not to get pregnant; which I subsequently did as I didn't understand or know anything about contraception. So, it is now my opinion the earlier the better. Don't mystify it. Children are curious. Don't demonise it- you will make them feel guilt and shame about something that they shouldn't. If you don't know what to do , here's where to go:

https://www.familyplanning.org.nz/about/our-position-statements/young-people-and-access-to-services

https://www.healthnavigator.org.nz/healthy-living/s/sexual-health-help-for-young-people/

https://www.kidshealth.org.nz/sexual-behaviour-children-young-people

And a harder but very relevant conversation is talking to your child about pornography. This article is defintely worth a read.

https://www.classificationoffice.govt.nz/news/latest-news/how-to-talk-with-young-people-about-pornography/

Maybe what you have been told makes you feel obligated to do something in response. This is an extremely tricky area. You child may think they are protecting someone who is actually in danger. Be as honest as you can and talk to them about why you think this person needs help. Maybe you can enlist their ideas about what would be the best way to help this person (let's say it's suicidal thoughts or a pregnancy) What you want to do is try and maintain the trust you have built up with your child while also doing the right thing. If you inform your child about your intentions, they might not like what you say but you do have to consider what is best for all.

My children are adults now and I've lost count of the number of times I have said to them "I wish I knew then what I know now."

There are so many ways I messed up when raising my children! However, that hasn't stopped them growing into amazing young citizens of the world. They are kind, they are compassionate and they want to make this world a better place. I am so proud of them all and they truly are my greatest achievement- not that I am trying to take full credit for how they turned out. There are far too many other factors that influenced that!

The point is -when you know better, you do better.

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