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Listening to understand

At 4 and a half years old, Lea often surprises me with the depths our conversations can reach. Her range of questions is incredible. Her questions usually start with the question, "Can I ask you something?" and then...

"Mommy, do birds have nostrils?"

"Which dinosaur is your favourite?"

"What is heaven like?"

From the moment I became Lea's mother, I have found it difficult at times to let her experience something knowing she may fail or it may upset her. My natural mother instinct is to protect her.

As our children grow, we start to let go more & more, praying that we have built a strong foundation and safe space for them to return anytime. 

Lea has always been great at communication and she will chat to me about the happy, sad and hard times she experiences. Most recently, I have found myself reflecting about my responses to her during these times. It is so easy as a parent for my first reaction to be to fix the situation or make Lea happy rather than see her upset. In the last few weeks, I have been intentionally practicing listening to understand, rather than listening to reply. How often do we listen to someone and we are already forming a response in our heads?

Through my own studies, life experiences & motherhood, I have realised that each one of us - child, teenager or adult - just wants to be seen, for our experiences to be validated and to have a safe space in which we can offload our emotions. 

When Lea comes home from school, she loves to swing. Swinging is phenomenal for calming our children's nervous systems. Swinging releases endorphins into the body, which makes children feel happier and more focused. After a few minutes of swinging, she is able to talk about her school day. She loves playing with her friends & being outside and talks about this each day. If something has upset her during the morning, it is during this time that she chats about it. Most of the time, Lea just wants me to hear her story. She wants me to hear how it made her feel and to validate her feelings. She wants me to listen to understand and in this way, she feels understood. It is during this time that I remind myself to be quiet, to truly listen. 

How often do we interrupt or try to make an issue smaller for our children by saying "Don't let that upset you" or "That's a silly thing to be upset about". The fact is the matter has already upset our child & they need us to see that. When our child cries, it is the release of those emotions and often the healing they need. "Don't cry" or "Please stop crying" stops that release and therefore their self-regulation & healing. 

The other option is to overreact to our child's experience & blow it completely out of proportion. Our children will become hesitant to share with us as they fear our emotional responses.

Listening is an active process in which we hear what the other person is saying and in which we take in messages from their body language, facial expressions & tone of voice. 

How can we practice listening to understand?

1. Pay Attention - give your child your undivided attention, observe their body language & facial expressions. Listen to what they are saying & let them finish.

2. Show that your are listening - make eye contact/nod.

3. Provide feedback: "It sounds like this made you happy/sad". "What do you mean when you say..."

4. Respond appropriately - respectfully & with kindness.

Once Lea has spoken through her experiences and feels validated and understood, she is able to move forward from this experience & it no longer causes the intense emotions she felt at first.

I also ask myself the question, "What does Lea need from me in this particular instance?" Is it to listen & understand, is it to give advice, is it to address this further? Most often, it is is to listen & understand.

**The "issues" referred to here are helping Lea deal with the ins & outs of friendships, older children, a new teacher etc. As parents, we must use our own discretion if we feel an issue is putting our child in any danger or there is an inappropriate situation.**