Listening to children is a full body engagement. The ears are part of listening, but only a part. Listening to your child reminds you of your body, requires all your senses and takes place in your heart. You don’t seek to understand what is going on with your mind. You seek to feel with your child, hold space for your child and keep them safe.
Here’s why listening to your children differs from listening to grown ups.
Grown ups go from story to feelings. Maybe!
Children go from feelings to story. Maybe!
Listening to the story
When you listen to a grown up, they will tell you a story, a sequence of events. Grown ups tell you about characters, events, times and dates.
They may have difficulty to weave a tight story. But if that’s the case they will usually apologize and use your attention to compose the story.
Then it all starts to make sense.
Because that’s what grown ups crave, more than anything: for things to make sense.
And as you listen to them, to the grown up, you may begin to discern feelings behind their stories. They may move from the narrative to the heart, from the rational to the emotional. Eventually.
Some excel at accessing their feelings in their story. Others suck at it. In general—for cultural reasons—women tend to access their feelings more easily than men. Men access their feelings too, but tend to obfuscate them. They have been socialized in a place where expressing all but a few feelings is taboo. But the feelings are still there.
Grown ups tell stories about their feelings. How they don’t make sense, how they are irrational, how they feel guilty about them—others are worse of than me.
Listening to grown ups focuses on the story. Occasionally the feelings flow as well. And only in the rarest of circumstances do these feelings flow without censorship.
Listening to children is completely different.
Children lead with their feelings.
When you listen to children, all they present to you are the feelings. They may have elements of a story in there. They may have begun to recognize that grown ups like there to be a story. They may have begun to realize that when you can tell a convincing story, you can make your feelings make sense.
But that’s not where children start.
Children lead with their feelings. They walk in the door and smash their bag in the corner. They sit and sulk on their bed. They writhe on the kitchen floor.
Children’s words function differently from grown ups’ words too. And this is where things get most confusing.
Children use words to express feelings.
Grown ups use words to explain feeling.
When a grown up says I hate you they may mean it. When a child says I hate you they most certainly don’t. They hate the feelings they’re having. And they need you to know that. But they most definitely do not hate you in that moment.
On the contrary.
In that moment they are deeply grateful for your attention. The attention you give and the trust that they feel, allow them to express how they’re feeling.
They’re not explaining to you why they’re feeling so bad. They’re just telling you they hurt. And when they show their anguish they use words as part of their bodies.
Words are not abstractions that hover above their bodies. Words are their bodies. So are their fists, and finger nails, and teeth, and kicking feet.
These are all tools that express how their feeling.
None of these are part of a story. None of these explain anything.
Children may never give you a blow by blow of the day that lead up to these feelings. They may give you a display of their feelings and hurt you and destroy parts of your house in the process. But you may never know what happened.
Of course that baffles you. Of course you want to know what happened. Of course you panic.
Your child is hurting.
And as you listen, as you engage your full body to listen, to protect them (and yourself), to be present with them, they heal.
The story is irrelevant.
At least in the moment. It’s not the narrative that heals them. Your presence heals them.
When the story matters
There are times when the story matters of course. Were they bullied at school? Was the teacher mean? Did a friend prefer to play with another friend? Did you leak feelings, feelings that had nothing to do with your children?
You want to know these things, if you can. And it’s thrilling to your children when you respond to them. You may have to intervene, act on their behalf, or be their advocate. When we acknowledge our own feelings we make them feel safer. It helps to apologize.
What I am saying is not that what happened doesn’t matter, even if you don’t always find out what happened. What I am saying is that you won’t get to the story first and the feelings second. When you listen to children you will get the feelings first and the story second. If you get the story at all.
Your whole body
When you listen to your children, your whole body speaks to them. Your tone of voice matters. Your actual words are almost irrelevant. How you look at them matters. Your presence matters.
Your presence matters.
You listen with your heart and their feelings flow. In the midst of their feelings, their words are vehicles for feelings, nothing more.
Once the feelings begin to subside, then you can see if they can tell you what happened. That’s when a narrative may begin to emerge. And that’s when you can begin to decide if you need to act.
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