Listening to Children

“Mum, can I tell you something.”

“Not now, can’t you see I’m busy?  Is it important?”

“Well, quite. It’s...”

“Listen, why don’t you go and tell Dad?”

“Because I tried and he sent me to tell you.”

“Well, then, tell me, while I finish cooking. In the meantime, can you bring me the milk from the fridge?”

Listening to children, at face value, seems like something obvious. However, as can be seen from the example above, it is not. As adults, we sometimes find ourselves in situations where listening to children is difficult and we can take a similar attitude to the parent in the example or other attitudes which are rather dismissive towards the child. It may be difficult for us to admit that we do take this attitude.  We might even deny it if somebody, perhaps the children themselves, points it out to us. At the same time, we would do well to stop and think about why we might not listen to children enough.

There are a number of reasons which maymake it difficult to listen to children. There could be reasons which are linked to ourselves. In the example, the mother was busy and was trying to finish a chore as basic needs at times hinder our ability to prioritise. So we might not have enough time to listen to the child. Many of us have lives which involve going from one activity to another. Stopping what we are doing and concentrating on the child and what he or she is saying may be difficult. At the same time, if the child does not feel listened to or simply given the chance to express ourself, he or she might decide not to continue to talk. And this might mean the parents, or other significant adults, do not remain in touch with what the child is going through. Ironically, when children are at a certain age when they want to speak, parents are caught up in chores. And when they arrive at a stage when children do not want to share and discuss things, parents have time to worry and try various ways to elicit discussion.

Another reason could be that the parent, or significant adult, has alot on his or her plate and is too focused on what he or she is going through. Parents or other significant others could be facing marital or relationship problems, job insecurity, health concerns, or a number of other issues. This could prevent them from letting go of their worries tofocus appropriately on the child. Although these concerns are important ones which do create a considerable amount of worry, children still need attention and may not be of an age or awareness to realise that their parents are not able to focus on what they want to tell them. They might experience this as rejection or dismissal, preventing them from forming a relationship of trust with their caregivers. Parents need to be able to shelve their concerns temporarily to focus on the children. They are the adults and, as such, responsible for creating an atmosphere of trust in which children can say what they have to say and make the disclosures that they need to make.

Parents or significant adults could also have a difficulty with listening to certain conversations, particularly as children grow into adolescents and introduce increasingly complicated subjects. In a sense, the more trusting the relationship between parents and children is, the more likely it is that all sorts of subjects will be discussed. For example, adolescents might want to discuss their fears, hopes and dreams associated with their intimate relationships. And their parents might want to avoid this, finding it embarassing or not wanting to face their own fears that their child will have problems in the relationships he or she chooses. It is important for parents to accept that their ‘child’ may not be a ‘child’ any more but that he or she is growing into an adolescent, with his or her own life to live. Guidance needs to be provided by parents in a way which indicates unconditional love but identifies certain behaviours as best avoided. At the same time, when labelling behaviour as inappropriate, parents have to do all they can to explain reasons for their judgement, thus helping adolescents to develop their own sense of what is right or wrong, without being riddled with excessive guilt.

In some situations where parents are expected to provide guidance, they may feel out of their depth because they do not have enough information about the subject. For example, children and adolescents might want to discuss their online activities, some of which might be dangerous, and the parent is not knowledgeable enough to provide the appropriate guidance. The same lack of knowledge might be experienced in the area of drug misuse, with new substances and habits being constantly developed. It is very important that parents keep themselves updated with what is happening in the areas which are of interest to adolescents, both those which could create problems, such as drug and alcohol misuse or abuse on the internet, as well as those which give adolescents pleasure, such as music, sports, fashion and online games. In this way, they can listen to their children in a more attentive way and are more likely to be in touch with their reality, thus picking up signs when and if their children are at risk or in need of particular guidance or attention.

Difficulties in listening could also be experienced for reasons linked to the children themselves. For example, adolescents often express themselves in ways which are somewhat hostile and the parent may avoid communicating with his or her adolescent to avoid this hostility. At the same time, not listening to an adolescent could mean putting the relationship seriously at risk. Adolescents, by their very nature, are at a stage where friends are taking priority over family members. Parents and other significant others need to make an effort themselves to remain part of the adolescent’s life. They need to do this by being attentive listeners, while allowing adolescents the space to start asserting their independence.

These communication problems are often experienced by parents of adolescents. At the same time, it is important to remember that adolescence is not the time when the relationship between the adolescent and his or her parent is being built. A relationship of trust starts being developed from birth and having a parent available to listen to the child is a very important component of this process. If this type of relationship exists, adolescence, which is a turbulent time in itself, allows for a continuation of listening by the parent and encourages the adolescent to continue to confide in his or her parents.

Listening is not an innate quality which we are either born with or not. It is a skill which allows us to understand what children are saying and to respond appropriately. Since it is a skill, it can be learnt and refined. This requires time, willingness, attention and unconditional acceptance of the person. If these ingredients are present, then, we can try to understand the child’s perspective by putting ourselves in his or her shoes. This will allow the child to feel understood and to start to trust us. Once a relationship of trust is built, we can use this as the foundation for us being part of a child’s life. In this way, we can be present to provide the support he or she needs as he or she goes through his or her childhood and adolescence and becomes an independent adult with confidence in his or her relationship-building abilities.

Positive Parenting Campaign

For the third consecutive year the Foundation for Social Welfare Services has embarked on a campaign on positive parenting aimed to create more awareness about the importance that children are provided with an upbringing in a positive family environment, where they are loved and respected, without any exposure to violence and abuse. The symbol the Foundation uses for this campaign is the blue ribbon, which indicates the bruises children suffer as a result of abuse. In fact, this symbol is used among various other countries to mark Child Protection Day.

Dr Pat Bonello
Service Manager, Out of Home Care Programme, Aġenzija Appoġġ ​​​​​​​​​​​​​