Calmer, Easier, Happier Boys: Reflective Listening

Why does my son get so frustrated? Why does my son cry so easily? The answer, says Noël Janis-Norton, is simple. Children, just like adults, experience a wide range of emotions in their daily lives and as parents, we need to learn how to let our sons express themselves.

Children are emotional. Sometimes the emotion is pleasant: happy, excited, curious, proud. At other times unpleasant – disappointment, sadness, jealousy, anger.

Sometimes they talk in a way that gives us a clue about what they’re feeling:

  • I’m really good at swimming
  • This game is boring
  • I hate my brother

Sometimes they don’t say anything but we can tell from how they’re behaving that they are experiencing uncomfortable emotions. They might cry or look away, or they might refuse to cooperate.

Children are much less able than adults to cope with unpleasant emotions. Often they respond to minor incidents with very intense feelings. Children move from one emotion to another very quickly, one moment laughing and the next, crying.

Why we need to help children deal with their feelings constructively

  • An upset child is more likely to misbehave than a child who is feeling good. The upset child may be uncooperative or rude; he may even lash out or deliberately damage something.
  • We are likely to get upset and respond by demanding that he stops or by telling off or shouting. The child then becomes even more upset.
  • This vicious circle is unpleasant for all involved: it eats away at the self-esteem of both the child and the parents.
  • Sometimes children don’t misbehave when they are upset, but they refuse to talk about how they are feeling. They may sulk or become quiet. Emotions that are kept inside escalate. We want our children to feel they can communicate how they feel, so that we can offer help or support.
  • When we establish good communication with our children, they will talk to us about school, about their friends, about their successes and disappointments. This sort of sharing and trust enhances the parent-child relationship.

How can we change our own behaviour as parents?

The first step towards helping children deal with their emotions is for us to accept that all emotions are valid, no matter how uncomfortable they feel. We need to give our children a clear message:

We accept all your feelings, no matter how unpleasant they may be. With the condition that there are some actions that are not allowed, no matter how you feel.

It can be difficult for us to accept that it is OK for children to feel uncomfortable emotions:

  • We love our children so much that we may wish they could be happy all the time. It’s painful to see them experiencing sadness or disappointment. And sometimes their upset feelings remind us of painful experiences in our own past.

It is not possible for anyone to be happy all the time. Acknowledging upset feelings is the first step in reducing them. If we pretend a child is not feeling what he’s feeling, or if we blame him for feeling the way he does, we risk driving the feeling underground. He will still feel whatever he’s feeling, but he may pretend to us, or even to himself, that everything is fine. And he will also be less likely to share his feelings with us in the future. Unfortunately those buried emotions may erupt when we least expect it and come out as even anger or resentment.

  • Sometimes we can’t understand why a child reacts strongly to what seem to be minor disappointments. How can someone get so upset just because he has to wait a few minutes for his breakfast? Why does he cry when a toy he never plays with gets broken?

It’s because children are immature! A minor frustration means much more to them than it would to us. We can help them to develop more self-control and resilience by not jumping in to fix the problem, by letting them see that they can survive their uncomfortable feelings.

  • We invest so much in our children, and we love them so much so it hurts when they express anger towards us or their siblings, or say they hate us.

It is very common and completely natural to have mixed feelings towards those we are close to. A child will be able to experience more of his loving feelings towards parents and siblings and friends by learning to accept his negative feelings towards them. This is especially true of sibling rivalry. Sadly, many adults still resent their brothers and sisters due to jealousy that was not addressed in childhood.

Children need to be able to talk about their feelings with someone who is really listening. Once children feel heard and understood, the intensity of their upset will gradually fade, and then they will be more open to problem solving. They will be much more likely to listen to what we have to say.

Boys Crying Noel Janis Norton

How can you help your children to feel heard?

Reflective Listening has four steps:

  1. First you need to listen. You need to give your child your full attention without offering an opinion or any suggestions. Show you are listening by using your body language – stop what you are doing and look at him. Make listening noises, and of course hug him if you feel that might help.
  2. Mentally put yourself in the child’s shoes, and try to imagine or guess what he is really feeling below the surface of his words. We need to look deeper because children are often confused or inarticulate, so they genuinely don’t know how to express what they mean.
  3. Use words to reflect back to your child what you imagine he is feeling. This strategy, Reflective Listening, gets its name from this important step and I give some examples below.
  4. Give your child his wishes in fantasy. This injects a note of lightness and fun. For example, on a long journey when your son complains “I’m tired! I want to go home”, you can say ”I wish I had a special potion we could all drink and we would instantly be home”. If you give your child his wishes in fantasy, he will feel understood and heard. And you don’t need to worry that he will believe the fantasy is really possible.

Some examples of Reflective Listening in practice:

  • Your son: “I’m really good at swimming.”

Don’t say: “No one likes a show-off”

Say: “A few months ago you were afraid of going in the deep end, and this time you jumped right in”.

  • Your son: “This game is boring.”

Don’t say: “You’re the one who wanted to play this game!” or “Don’t give up just because you’re not winning”.

Say: “It doesn’t feel good to lose, especially when for a while it looked like you were going to win”.

  • Your son: “I hate my brother!”

Don’t say: “Don’t be silly. You played so nicely with him for hours yesterday”.

Say: “It sounds as if you’re really angry with him right now”.

When we can see from a child’s actions that he is upset, even when he is not using words to tell us what the matter is, we can still Reflectively Listen:

  • When I tell my son off, he looks away.

Rather than reminding him to look at you when you’re talking, try saying, “Maybe you’re embarrassed. Maybe you’re wishing you hadn’t pushed your sister”.

  • My son whines instead of doing what I’ve asked.

Instead of telling him off, you could say, “It’s not easy to stop playing when you’re having so much fun”.

You may worry that talking about uncomfortable feelings will make your child feel worse. In fact, just the opposite happens. Once aired, feelings tend to reduce in intensity or even disappear.

At that point your son is more likely to listen to you, or he may start thinking about possible solutions to his problem.

It is OK for our children to express their upset feelings, but some actions are not OK. To help you establish exactly what behaviour is and is not allowed, you will need to put rules and routines into place.

Noël Janis-Norton is a learning and behaviour specialist with over 45 years’ experience in Britain and the United States as a head teacher, special needs advisor, consultant, lecturer, parenting coach, speaker and author. She is the founder of Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting, resources that can help you and your family, from books and CDs to parenting courses, workshops, fortnightly talks and private consultations (at the Centre or by telephone).

Her new book, Calmer, Easier, Happier Boys is out now.