When someone understands us, we really appreciate it. It makes us feel positively toward our listener, even close. It gives us a chance to clarify our own thoughts and feelings as the other person reflects them back to us––we feel better. When parents understand their kids, these same benefits occur: the child feels closer to the parent and more emotionally settled from being heard. Listening is a gift we can give our kids-–-when we know how.
When We’re Misunderstood
Being misunderstood, on the other hand, feels awful; we experience a “disconnect”—our listener “doesn’t get us.” We don’t want to open up again to whoever misunderstands us because it is so unpleasant. When parents misunderstand their kids, it’s the same thing: it feels awful for the child and the youngster often withdraws, preferring to keep future thoughts and feelings to him or herself. By the time a youngster reaches the teen years he or she may have concluded that being understood by parents is out of reach, leaving no point in trying to communicate.
However, parents don’t intentionally misunderstand their kids. They love their kids and try to help them. In fact, the “misunderstanding” often comes about precisely because of this love. All too often, parents want to skip the understanding step and go right to the advice step: “Do your homework if you want to get good grades-–-you shouldn’t be on the phone so much.” “You need to pick better friends.” “You should make more of an effort to make plans for the weekend.” And so on and so forth. While parental advice is often valid and important to offer our kids, timing is everything. Advice comes after understanding in any conversation.
Understanding involves naming a child’s feelings. Suppose a child has accidentally dropped a plate on the floor, smashing it to tiny bits. A good first understanding response could be something like “Oh my! What a loud crash! That’s scary.” If a child gets a poor mark on a test that he or she studied hard for, an understanding response might be, “Oh, that’s frustrating, isn’t it?” If a child expresses upset to a parent by saying, “You’re so mean!” the parent can reflect back, “I know you’re very mad at me. I know you don’t think I’m being fair.” After naming such feelings, the parent can teach the child a better, more respectful way to express emotions. The naming of feelings forges a close bond between parent and child and helps the child accept guidance more easily.
When naming feelings, refrain from using the word “but” in the same sentence. Just name the feeling and then put a period at the end. Start a new sentence when you want to give information. For instance, “I know you don’t want to go to swimming lessons today. The lesson starts in half an hour, so we have to leave quickly,” or “I know it’s frustrating to have to wait your turn. He’ll be off the computer in a few minutes and then you can go on.” In other words, it’s fine to acknowledge a child’s feelings without changing what you plan to do. It is still valuable for the child to feel understood even when she doesn’t get her way.
Consistently naming a child’s feelings before doing or saying anything else is a powerful way to help build a child’s emotional intelligence. It helps reduce conflict and forge a strong parent-child bond. Showing understanding is an act of love that parents can generously offer their kids. Both child and parent will benefit.
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