This blog was informed by a conversation with Dr. Arash Anoshiravani. Dr. Anoshiravani is a pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist at Stanford School of Medicine and the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford.
When children feel sad or worried about something, they may be afraid to share their emotions with their parents. You can help your child feel more comfortable expressing feelings by practicing supportive listening. Follow these steps to help make sure your child feels safe, supported, and understood throughout important conversations.
Listen actively to what your child is saying
Listen to what your child has to say. Show that the conversation is important to you by putting away your phone, turning down the television, and looking at your child (eye contact). Pay attention to what is being discussed. When a young person feels they are being listened to, it takes a huge emotional and psychological burden off of them. Listening to your child is very important for relationship building.
It's important to practice active listening. Active listening means making a conscious effort to hear and understand what is being said. Active listening means you are tuned in to your child's thoughts and feelings.
Tip: Ask open-ended questions
Some young people may feel nervous if you ask specific questions about their behavior. Instead, simply ask how they are doing and let them talk about what is going on. They will share what they are comfortable sharing, and many times this conversation will naturally lead to them opening up.
If you are concerned there is a problem, but they aren’t mentioning it, you may say, “There are so many things going on in the world right now, and there are a lot of people feeling worried, is that the same for you?” It’s best to keep your side of the conversation matter-of-fact, so they don’t feel like you expect a specific response.
Tip: Respect your child’s boundaries
If your child isn’t ready to talk, you can respect that and let them know you are available if they ever need help. This can open a door for a future conversation while showing that you respect and trust them.
Make sure your child knows they're not alone
Sometimes a child just needs to know that many people feel the same way they do. Share with them that they are not the only ones who get nervous before a class presentation. They aren’t the only person who worries about the world. Sometimes hearing that many people share these feelings, even adults, takes a huge burden off children because they don’t feel so strange or alone.
Reframe the situation
The last thing, aside from listening and education, is to reframe the situation. It’s helpful for young people to understand that there are many different perspectives for any given situation. You can help your child understand why a person is acting a certain way toward them. Could your teacher be strict because they want you to learn? Maybe your older brother told on you because he is trying to protect you? Could their behaviors be out of love? Often, helping a child understand a situation in a slightly different way can help them feel differently and behave differently.
Remember, it can be difficult for children to open up, but it can help to have a caring, respectful adult willing to think through things with them. The parent-child relationship has a lot of emotions wrapped up in it on both sides, so it can be equally as hard for parents to talk about some feelings with their children. If you are having trouble discussing feelings, your pediatrician can help talk with your child.