Updated: May 26, 2020
"My child is not listening to me."
A common grouse amongst parents.
I've threatened, I've bullied, I've bribed, I've explained, I've given up.
I oscillated between all 5, depending on whether I'm up for a power struggle. As I grew in experience, I understood effective parenting is NOT natural. It is a learned skill. As I mastered techniques, our communications improved and I am no longer the screaming mother. I do still raise my volume to get their attention, but, most of the time, they listen.
Because, whenever my kids don't listen to me, that's the alarm bell for me to recognise that:
"I haven't been listening to them."
It's that simple.
It's a powerful tool because that inward reflection that I haven't been listening actually empowers me to shift immediately into an active listening mode.
I asked my daughter to bathe after school the other day.
"NO" was her immediate response. With a deliberate blink.
I pushed aside all the automatic thoughts that popped into my mind.
I ignored the "you should know" expectation especially since this was a routine.
I ignored the hygiene concern "you are sweaty"
I ignored the time factor "I have to go off for an appointment"
I pushed aside my slight irritation that things were not going according to plan.
Focusing my attention completely on her instead of TELLING her my points. I inhaled a deep breath.
As I exhaled, I calmly asked. "Why darling?"
"I just don't want to bathe!" she retorted angrily.
Instead of reacting to her outburst, I used my heart to listen. Searching for what might be HER valid reason. She obviously had a reason and knowing it would help me understand her better. I kept quiet as I searched.
In that silence, and space of love, something shifted as she realised I was not going to insist she do what she knew to. Mommy was not fighting her. Mommy was really trying to understand.
She slowly pointed to her knee and showed me an insect bite. "It's painful when I bathe."
It was so small (to me). How could something so tiny cause so much pain? I wondered as I stared at the 'insect prick'.
Yet, instead of brushing it off, I choose to look from HER perspective. I choose to feel how she feels. Remember it's about the other person. Not us.
"If you say its painful, I'm sure it is. When did you get it?"
I held up my arms in a gesture of embrace to comfort her from the pain she must be feeling.
She hugged me back, smiled and answered : "I don't know.." she drifted off nonchalantly.
"It's okay if you don't want to. You'll be sticky and smelly though."
I really meant it. I really meant I was fine if she chose not to bathe. From past interactions, she knew that this was my way of giving her complete control over her decision. Kids are great at sensing our real intentions. If she could live with her stickiness, I would live with her smell.
"Okay, lets bathe. I can put my leg on the wall so the water doesn't touch the wound." she voluntarily chirped.
"You sure? We can always wipe the rest of your body?" I offered her an alternative.
When we really get someone's world, there is no need to insist on ours. In fact, our perspective often disappears. What's left is truly getting the entirety of what they are saying.
"Yes. I want you to bathe me because I want to feel clean!" she emphatically stood up and motioned for me to follow her.
"Okay. You wish is my command." I played along with her, smiled at her ingenuity and affirmed her problem solving skills at play about her leg.
My daughter listened only because I first listened to her.
I empathised (from her perspective) and left her to decide what she wanted. In the absence of a my insisting my way, a space opened up where she could truly decide what she wanted.
Often, when both parties have a differing point of view, a power struggle ensues. Where neither party wants to give in. The entire argument shifts from a solution to who wins. Is there really a winner when the relationship is strained? What truly matters? Winning a power struggle or winning a relationship? I choose the later. Because, life is more than winning. Life is made up of the relationships in our life.
To be honest, there are other times when she decides not to shower because she is clean (from her perspective) and I live with it. After all, its her body and I can take a day (or two) of non-baths. If she doesn't itch, cringe as I may, its a conscious decision to step back to allow her a space to make her own choices so I develop responsibility in her. That is another topic for another day.
I listen with my EARS.
What are the exact words they are saying? Not what I think I know. But, in the current situation, what exact words are they saying? What tone are they using. Is it a tired tone, an angry tone, a misunderstood tone? Their volume clues me in on their energy. Is it loud(high) or soft (lower).
I listen with my EYES.
What is their body language telling me? Do their crossed arms signal a defensive stance? Why do they feel they need to defend themselves against me? How am I responsible for putting them in that stance? Are they tired? Sad? Afraid? Happy? Excited?
I listen with my HEART.
Going beyond the literal words they use.
Don't react to "I hate you!" Children never mean that. It expresses their anger in the moment, but what they actually need is comfort and reassurance. Not a adult throwing a tantrum back with equally hurtful words.
"I'm not going to eat!" Under the angry outburst, is a child who is trying to assert their autonomy. Giving them some space might be the better solution instead of fighting it out because no one really wins in a fight. The relationship always loses.
Watch https://youtu.be/liyC1CxtYig for connecting with your child on D.A.T.E.S.
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