Children need to be heard. Listening to children gives them the feeling that they count, that they matter. They can draw on the strength and experience of an adult whom they trust – and they trust those who give them stable and consistent attention. It is during childhood that they develop a level of self-esteem that may follow them throughout their lives, and the child who has been listened to is much more likely to develop a positive self-image than one who has not been heard.
One of the best gifts an adult can provide a child is showing the child how to use active listening skills. Adults can model good listening techniques for children and advise them on ways to listen better by picking out the highlights of a conversation and asking relevant questions.
Use the following listening techniques in dealing with the special needs of children:
Pay special attention as they talk. Maintain good eye contact and forget about the telephone and television. Children can tell by the adult’s reply whether or not they have the adult’s attention.
Know when to, and when not to, use active listening. Use active listening when you are free enough of your own problems to show the empathy and acceptance a child needs. Use it when you are in the mood and have the time. Listening should not be a way to change the child’s behavior. Pay attention to the child’s mood too, and make sure the time is right for the child to talk. Sometimes a child just wants to play or to be left alone.
Listen with patience. A child has a more limited vocabulary and often takes longer to express ideas. Listen as if you had plenty of time. We may feel that we know better and cut the child off – but it is far more beneficial to let the child express a thought freely at his or her own pace.
Children sometimes need encouragement to talk. Children haven’t had much experience in the art of conversation, so we sometimes have to ask questions. When a child feels an adult is attentive, the child will be more willing to open up.
Listen to the child’s nonverbal messages. Children communicate not only through words, but also through their body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, energy levels, or changes in behavior. Pay attention to these cues and respond in the way that is best for the child.
Baya Mebarek, Psy.D., LMFT