Effective Parenting: Reflective listening leads to better communication

When I first began raising my children, I determined to do a better job at parenting than my parents had done with me. So I attended a class called “Systematic Training for Effective Parenting” (STEP, by Dinkmeyer and McKay). I learned how to do something there that neither my mother nor my father had done with me.

I learned a skill called reflective listening. This skill teaches you to avoid talking to your children (nagging, criticizing, threatening, lecturing, advising, probing, etc.). Instead, you talk with your children, fostering mutual respect between you and your child.

Reflective listening allows your children to express themselves honestly without fear of criticism or rejection from you. It doesn’t mean that you need to agree with them. You demonstrate respect by genuinely listening with an accepting attitude, free from anticipating their negative reactions.

In reflective listening, you listen for what the child might be feeling and intending to say. Then you state that back to the child. You thus provide a mirror for your child in which she can see herself reflected more clearly. Your reflective listening enables her to understand herself and her responses better. It draws out her willingness to talk and process what she feels and experiences.

For example, your child storms into the house, stomps into his room, and slams the door. You have a couple of choices in how you respond. You can say, “Don’t you know that we don’t slam doors around here? Now come back here and do it again -- without slamming!” Or you can say, “It seems like you’re feeling pretty angry right now.”

If you were a child, which response would cause you to want to talk about your feelings? The latter one, of course. It expresses acceptance rather than judgment. Such a response supports your child to increase his emotional vocabulary. It encourages him to look inside himself at his emotion and to give a name to that emotion – anger.

Suppose he chooses to talk with you about what’s bothering him: “Yeah, Billy decided he was going to play football with Mike after school, and not with me!” A lecturing response would be: “Well, you can’t expect things to go your way all the time. Get over it!” Using reflective listening, you could say, “I’ll bet that makes you feel pretty disappointed -- like Billy has abandoned you.”

If you have had a habit of criticizing, nagging, etc., your child may not open up right away when you respond like this. Let that be okay. Just make your reflective listening statement and leave it alone, allowing him to choose silence. The more you practice reflective listening, the more your child will learn to trust that your response is genuine, and will begin to tell you more.

To use this tool well, you must know and accept your own feelings. Talk about your emotions with your children. “When you fell down the stairs, I felt really scared!” You thus give the message that it’s okay to feel fear and to talk about it. And you again encourage your children to develop their own feeling vocabulary.

If you use this tool consistently, you will find that your relationships with your children will improve. You will see more mutual respect and less drama.

It worked with my three sons!

To contact Dr. Marta, write drmartacoach@gmail.com or call (928) 451-9482.

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