Listening is a skill we’re in danger of losing in our sound-bite modern world. Psychologist
Dr Nicola Davies advises on how we could all become better listeners
Listen to your child
You would think that listening to your child was a fundamental part of parenting,
but there’s evidence that many children do not feel properly listened to.
It’s crucial for children to feel able to express their feelings and be heard. It
strengthens the bond between the two of you and encourages open communication. It
helps children to develop social skills, promotes an exchange of ideas, thoughts
and feelings, and builds self-esteem. Signs that suggest your child does not feel
• They stop verbalising in the middle of a sentence.
• They don’t make the effort to talk to you as often as they used to.
• They get irritated frequently and demand your attention.
If you spot any of these signs, there are several steps you can take to make a change:
• Set aside a quiet place and adequate time to listen to your child without any interference.
Sometimes a walk works well.
• Don’t be judgmental or critical.
• Listen to them when they are experiencing strong feelings or a
problem. Be fully present during these moments. Turn off the
television, remove your phone from the room, and put down the newspaper.
• Be open to listening to any and all kinds of feelings your child
may express, even if you don’t understand them.
• Show interest in what they say. Give positive feedback by nodding, smiling and
saying supportive words like ‘yes,’ ‘good,’ ‘I
see,’ and so on.
• Imagine what you would have felt and how you would have reacted at that age.
• Watch for their non-verbal behaviours – their facial expressions
and body language.
•If you are not sure you have heard them correctly, repeat what you have understood.
This gives them the opportunity to correct you.
• Respond only when your child has stopped verbalising and
respond in a language your child can understand.
• Avoid the ‘but’. Don’t oversimplify and undermine what your child
has been feeling by inserting ‘but’ anywhere. For example: ‘I understand you are
feeling sad, but we will buy you another doll later.’ Instead, you could say: ‘This
sounds as if it has really hurt you and you’re feeling sad.’
Dr Michael Jellinek, professor of psychiatry and paediatrics at
Harvard Medical School, says: ‘We live in a fast-paced world where
slowing down is hard.
‘So firstly, slow down, and secondly, remember to listen and consider for a while
before immediately responding with your own advice.
‘Show you understand what your child is saying by repeating it in as clear a manner
as you can. You can also relate how what the child is feeling parallels something
you felt when growing up,’ he adds.
Making Taylor feel heard
Check out our vignette to see how you might be able to listen better.
Karen was cooking when her six-year-old son Taylor rushed to her, crying. He told
her that his friend had not shared his new toy with him. Karen had to finish cooking
dinner as guests were to arrive soon. She was tempted to go on cooking, while nodding
her head as Taylor spoke about what happened. Instead, she stopped what she was doing,
bent down to Taylor’s height, made eye contact with him and wiped away his tears.
She said: ‘It seems like your friend made you feel sad when he didn’t share his toy
with you.’ By saying this, she made Taylor feel heard and acknowledged. Taylor knew
his feelings were important to Karen and gradually started to calm down.
Listen to your partner
Active listening skills facilitate effective communication within the whole family.
A key part of positive parenting is that parents communicate often between themselves
about their children.
Listening to your partner helps to ensure you are both consistent in your behaviour
towards your child. It also shows your child how healthy communication skills work.
Here are some tips on how to listen to your partner about parenting:
• Set aside a time and place, free from distractions, where you can talk to your
partner about your child.
• Differences of opinion are likely to crop up. However, before you
contradict, hear your partner out. Take turns to talk about your
thoughts and feelings rather than interrupting each other. Show
respect for your partner’s opinions and concerns even if you disagree.
• Encourage your partner’ involvement in the parenting process. Don’t make decisions
single-handed – check with your partner first.
• If your partner is complaining about your child, hear him/her
out. Let your partner express his feelings. Listen actively while using encouraging
comments like ‘hmm’, ‘yes’ and ‘I hear you’ to fill in the gaps and make your partner
know that you are listening attentively.
• Be mindful of your body language while communicating with your partner. Face him
and nod to show that you’re listening. If you
find yourself distracted, say so and set another time to talk.
• Ask open-ended questions to encourage your partner to describe
his thoughts and feelings. For example, ‘Tell me about…’
• Sometimes your partner may not be upfront about something. Be mindful of his body
language and facial expressions and draw him out by responding to them.
• Give and ask for feedback to ensure that you are getting the intended message.
Ask for clarification where needed.
• Avoid assuming what your partner is thinking or feeling. Restate his comments in
your own words and confirm whether you have understood the issue.
Dr Jellinek recommends setting aside 10 or 15 minutes morning or evening for parents
to sit down and talk about what they feel is important. ‘See if any issues raised
resonate with your own childhood experiences,’ he suggests.
Reaching a consensus on an issue of concern
This case vignette gives you some ideas on how to communicate with your partner about
Ariel wanted to talk to her husband, Peter, about their five-year-old daughter Carla’s
recent temper tantrum at school. She described the entire episode to him. Peter didn’t
share Ariel’s concerns, but was patient and actively listened to what she had to
say without interrupting, simply asking a few open-ended questions about the episode.
From Ariel’s body language, he could understand she felt tense. He held her hand
and reassured her verbally. He asked for clarifications and feedback where necessary.
Ariel felt better after sharing her concerns with Peter. Together they came to a
consensus about how to talk to Carla about the issue and their next plan of action.
Teach your child to listen
Children can struggle with listening as it requires a lot of attention and mental
They may appear to be listening to you while not paying any attention at all. It’s
important to help children develop good listening skills early on.
Here are some tips:
• Model active listening skills when your child is talking to you. This gives them
a reference for their own listening.
• Teach your child to maintain eye contact while listening.
• Talk to your child as often as you can. This will not only develop
listening skills but also language skills.
• Ask children to repeat your instructions to ensure they are
listening and have understood what you have said.
• Read together and make it interactive. Make your child wonder about what will happen
next. Ask questions to make sure children are listening.
• Have conversations that interest your child. This encourages both listening and
• Cook with your child. Let them mix and stir while you read the directions out loud.
• Listen to audio books together. Sing or act along.
• Play ‘story chain’ with one person beginning a story while others
contribute a sentence one by one. For younger children, ask them
specific details to help bring the story alive.
•Watch a TV show together. Ask your child what the characters are doing and saying.
• Go on a ‘sound hunt’. Ask children what they can hear. Listen to the sounds of
the birds singing, leaves rustling, cars, the wind.
• Play ‘telephone’. Hold your hand over your ears like a phone and
whisper something to your child to which they answer back.
• Instructional drawing. You tell your child what to draw bit by bit,
such as ‘Draw a circle… make a sun…draw a mountain’.
• Repeat after me. Say five words that your child repeats back in the same order.
Make a fun game out of this.
‘Children will often do what their parents actually do (not say) so if parents listen
carefully, children are likely to do the same,’ says Dr Jellinek. He recommends sharing
and discussing an age-appropriate TV show or having dinner together as a family to
share the day’s events, or parents taking turns on the school run. All these maximise
opportunities to listen and communicate. Listening is an essential skill which offers
a better parent child relationship, as well as lots of fun along the way!