Some advice from an expert on how to improve your relationships with your kids.
Many parents complain that their children never listen. But what if it were up to parents to pay attention first?
Marie-Paule Mordefroid, mother, psychologist, and expert in personal development, proposes active listening as a primary tool in raising your children.
Parents often come to the bitter realization that their children do not listen to them. Why not?
Marie-Paule Mordefroid: I would ask the question the other way around: are we listening to them? Listening is amazingly powerful; it is transmitted by contagion. It is one of the key ways trust is built up between parents and children. The child needs to listen to what you have to say, but in order to really hear it, he or she first needs to know they have been listened to.
What is difficult for parents when it comes to listening to their children?
At first, they have to rethink whether they know exactly what their offspring needs. It is a question of letting go of ready-made solutions, of projecting themselves onto the child. Under the influence of emotion, we tend to react instinctively. Active listening is not natural; it runs counter to this instinctive reaction. Our nature wounded by sin pushes us to express ourselves according to our ego. This attitude protects us from others, but it also hinders us and hinders them. Looking back on our own experience is helpful: I, too, once needed to be listened to. This is a vital need for every human being.
But there are many times when authority has to be exercised, when rules have to be enforced.
Of course, I’m not saying we should become mere passive receptors, letting ourselves be walked all over like doormats! It is important to exercise authority by listening empathetically, while enforcing limits and even applying punishments. Education is about maintaining this paradox.
Take the example of a child who refuses to go to bed on time. First, we give them a warning: “In 10 minutes, lights out.” Then, if the light is still on and the child is still playing, we can say: “I understand that you don’t want to go to sleep” and at the same time, “But it’s really bedtime. So I’m asking you to turn off your light.” Make sure that these two coexisting desires are expressed.
This won’t stop parents from getting angry; sometimes it’s good to let your feelings out. Our emotions say something to the child and allow us to express our legitimate needs.
So how exactly do you go about putting into practice this active listening?
As a first step, passive listening is a readiness to listen; it consists of keeping quiet, letting the other person express himself or herself. It does not require any particular skill. But active listening goes further. It allows the other person to say what he or she has to say. In a very simple way.
For example, through invitations: “Do you need to tell me something?” Questions, not to satisfy our curiosity or project our anxiety, but to facilitate: “What happened? How did you feel? What did you think?” Silences, a way for parents to show that they are taking their time; and finally, rephrasing: saying in your own words what the child is trying to say. If they talk about “that idiot math teacher,” we can say, “You seem angry at that math teacher,” so the child realizes that we really understand them. This will make it easier for him or her to follow through with their explanation.
You seem to be saying that it’s better to focus on what the child feels, rather than sticking to what he or she says.
Yes, because most of the time, the most important thing is emotion. Naming it has a very soothing effect. I remember a women whose husband had to go abroad for several months. Fifteen days before his departure, their 4-year-old daughter was unbearable. The mother held her close and said: “You are sad that Dad is leaving. Is that what you mean?” The child started to cry for a long time. The sadness that she felt had translated into restlessness and fussiness. Naming the right emotion allowed her to calm down before her father’s departure.
Children often express themselves through “non-verbal” language. How do we decode it?
The etymology of the word “child” (infans) means the one who is deprived of speech. This does not mean that they do not express themselves in other ways. Even before speech appears, parents are listening to the toddler’s signals. A mother empathizes with her crying baby when she says, “You’re hungry” or “You were scared,” which is a way of rephrasing a non-verbal message. Attention must be paid to all the child’s bodily attitudes, their gestures (facial expression, tone), actions like door slamming or paper torn with frenzy, and somatization (a mental state expressed as a physical symptom). Children express themselves constantly.
Parents have to trust that the child will find a way to express what’s wrong. The child will always manage to get attention, sometimes at the most inconvenient moment. It’s not a matter of psychologically searching for the cause of the behavior, but of being receptive to what the child is saying, right now, or would like to say. We are then in the mode for an authentic encounter.
Why is this the preferred form of listening?
Listening to emotions makes it possible for intimate needs to be verbalized. If these needs are satisfied, it leads to joy, eagerness, enthusiasm, etc. If not, anxiety, anger, jealousy are triggered as a warning signal. With the help of a parent who is listening, the child puts into words what he is experiencing, and can then connect with his authentic inner self. Thus the child is not defined by what he feels, nor is he a prisoner to it. This true work of inner unification allows the child to accept himself for who he really is.
This listening also allows your child to enter into a relationship of trust. Thus, she is able to live her life, knowing that she can rely on her parents: they don’t have to solve her problems, but to understand her. After having accepted the child’s feelings as her own way of reacting, we can continue the dialogue: “How are you going to make sure that this does not happen again?”
American psychologist Thomas Gordon, a proponent of active listening, suggests asking: whose problem is it? If it is the child’s, then it is up to him or her to solve it. Of course, parents can help, by asking: “What do you need? Can I help you?” By allowing the child to take responsibility for their emotions, the parents give them the means to find their own solutions and to be in charge of their own life.
How do you know if the child feels they have been listened to?
You will see a complete turn around in their attitude: their body will relax, a smile might appear, a look of complicity. They will want to continue the dialogue, if the parent continues to listen. This takes time and involves a risk—you never know how far it will take you!
If I listen to my child in this way, won’t I make him or her feel like I agree with everything they say?
Let’s immediately dispel the misconception that listening is denying oneself or approving the other. Good listening requires centering on the other while remaining yourself: when the other speaks to me, their words resound in me. Each of us listens through who we are, therefore also through our flaws. There is no such thing as perfect listening. Learning to listen means getting to an understanding of what the other is experiencing, without assent or judgment. Our brakes on listening can manifest themselves in hasty judgment (“you shouldn’t have”), advice, or consolation (“don’t be sad”). Instead of saying to my daughter, who was bragging to me about her little victories of the day, “That’s great, honey” (judgment), I preferred to say, “You felt it was the right thing for you to do” (understanding), which allowed her to take full ownership of her action.
Are there special times and places to practice this listening?
Yes, precious moments you have to seize. When you’re alone with a child, for example in the morning while getting dressed, on the way to school, on car trips, you should take advantage of these moments. One evening, as I was clearing the table, I found myself alone with my 14-year-old son, who asked me, “Mom, if I went out with a girl, how would you feel about it?” We spent the evening talking about it.
But this is not enough. You have to make the decision to take the time. Personally, I set a goal for myself to be alone with everyone at least once a day, when it was time to say good night to them in their rooms. I had a few surprises. A child can confide in you what might have gone completely unnoticed in other circumstances.
It is difficult to be available all the time. What can you do when you are not able to be there to listen?
You can empathize “what you tell me seems very important” and ask to reschedule a meetup—as long as you keep your promise! Parents should acknowledges the request, but also make room for their own needs. If one parent does not feel they are able to listen, they can rely on their spouse. The mother’s role is sometimes to suggest that certain things should be discussed with the father. And if, within the family, listening is not possible (the parents are always the first educators), why not find external support: scout leader, godfather or godmother, grandparents, priest, competent specialist? Do they already know the child? If so, the relationship will be more easily established. Finally, it may be a sign that the parent needs to be listened to him or herself. The greatest service we can do for our children is to satisfy our own needs. I am a great believer in the virtue of friendship and peer support networks.
Is this listening fundamental for living as a Christian?
No, it is a requirement for everyone, no need to be Christian for that! But it is a privileged way to live in charity with one’s neighbor. In the family, my spouse and my children are my closest ties. Listening is a just love that allows you to feel close to the other while remaining yourself.
As Christians, we are fortunate to have the model of Jesus, the way he practiced this listening. In the Gospel, we see his open-ended questions: “What do you want me to do for you? What were you talking about on the way?” which allow for the expression of hopes, feelings or faith. Look at the way he accompanied the disciples of Emmaus. They are on their way out of Jerusalem, on a wandering path, a way of showing that they are making a mistake. Jesus does not chide them; he walks beside them unconditionally. He takes time, leaves room for the expression of the state they are in: sadness, disappointment. Jesus begins by listening to them fully, and only then does he begin to instruct them, and the disciples, in turn, are then able to listen.
On the contrary, we parents often set conditions: “I want to listen to you, but first, I want you to clean your room.” The technique of listening is inevitably a human domain. But true grace comes from God.
Interview by Raphaëlle Simon