Allison, 14, comes home from school and busts through the door. She slams her backpack against the wall in the family room and throws herself onto the sofa, only to ignore your demands to get her shoes off the furniture and put her backpack on the hook where she knows it is supposed to go.
Is this a familiar scene in your household?
As parents, our reactions to Allison’s behavior will mostly reflect an immediate request for correction. In response to Allison, many of us would be quick to say, “Get your shoes off the couch and go pick up that backpack!” With this reaction, however, we are ignoring the symptoms behind the disrespectful behavior.
But what if, instead of making demands for better behavior or offering reminders of family rules, you simply take a step back and notice the behavior? Moreover, what if you look for the emotions behind the behavior and place your request for compliance on the back burner for a bit? How might the interaction occur differently? These are some of the principles of a type of listening identified in the work of Carl Rogers, a 1950s psychologist known for his emphasis on helping people become self-aware through reflective listening.
The first step in reflective listening is to become a detective of sorts. First, you must tamp down your own reactive, subjective emotions in order to focus on your child. This is hard to do because our role in parenting naturally consists of advising and telling our children based on our own judgments. Instead, try to observe your child’s demeanor, behaviors, tone, and words. In our example with Allison, we see anger and frustration, as well as defiance of the rules. If we practice our detection skills even more, we will likely discover some hurt underlying those emotions.
By listening to your child reflectively, you are helping him or her define emotions and minimize acting out. This teaches your child that he or she can choose to control and manage emotions. Try to empathize with your child’s feelings without making it about you. What is their perspective? Though your child may have broken a house rule or even hurt your feelings by lashing out at you, try to be nonjudgmental for a moment. Connect with your child’s feelings. We can easily empathize with anger and frustration because we have all been in situations where we have those feelings. You might say, “Wow, Allison. You seem really angry,” or, “I can see your frustration.” These statements are more disarming in nature and send a signal to your child that you see him or her, not just the behavior.
Ask questions out of compassion. Keep the conversation focused more on your child’s emotions and story before moving forward to address the undesirable behavior or a solution. Paraphrase what you hear. Your questions shouldn’t be “why” they behaved in such a manner; your questions should come from a place of wanting more information. Again, using our example of Allison, ask her “Can I help?” or “Can you tell me what happened?” These types of questions may deactivate the power of her emotions and keep her from acting out further. It will also assure her that you want to listen.
Reflecting on or summarizing what you hear from your child can help dampen the powerful emotions your child is feeling. When you restate or paraphrase what has been said, your child has an opportunity to step back and reevaluate their statements and feelings. With this practice, you are teaching your child how to regulate emotions through conversation and process feelings rather than behave as a result of the emotions.
Allison, for example, may share that she was being teased on the way home from school about her new hairstyle. She may tell you that even some of her friends joined in. In response to her story, reflection might sound like this: “What I am hearing is that you are hurt because you were made fun of.” Similarly, summarizing sounds like: “What a terrible end to your school day. It sounds like you’ve been hurt by people you thought were your friends.”
By listening to your child reflectively, you are helping them define emotions and minimize acting out. This teaches your child they can choose to control and manage emotions. At this point, you can move back into the role of advising and telling. You might end the fictional example with Allison by saying something along the lines of, “OK, well, why don’t you go put that backpack on its hook and let’s go find a movie for tonight?”
Some points to remember when using DEAR:
- Take a step back from your own emotions before reacting.
- Look underneath the behavior.
- Don’t use “why” when asking questions.
- Paraphrase and summarize what you hear.
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