Improving relationships with your kids

Improving your relationship with the children and teens in your life…By dialling up your listening skills.

Whether we’re locked down in the house together and rubbing each other up the wrong way, or enjoying the opportunities for proximity with our little ones and big ones, or whether we are enjoying the variety and spaciousness of the release back to school, whatever the legacies of the last few months, and whatever the challenges are that lie ahead for us in family life…the quality of our ability to listen to each other will determine the quality of our connection.

Think to a time when you have been in need, when you have felt anxious, overwhelmed, frustrated…So many to choose from!!

What was it like when someone REALLY listened to you at your point of need? What happened? What did they do? What was the effect on you?

Now flip that. What is it like when someone does not listen? Does not give you the chance to speak? Shuts you down? What happened? What did they do? What was the effect on you?

Listening is a real gift. We talk of paying attention. Listening is an investment in our relationships that pays us back. But there is so much that can get in the way – in terms of mind chatter, endless tasks to do…so much that can take our eyes off the prize.

Yesterday, my daughter had her first major experience of being shut down whilst struggling to get me a Mothers’ Day present.

We had passed this tree in the florist’s shop window twice daily on our afternoon river walks. And it never failed to raise a smile. We named it ‘the Butt-Cheek tree’. 

Clearly there’s only one of these in the universe. And my little one had tried by various means to buy it for me – by herself. She had tried phoning. She had looked at the website. She had emailled. But no reply. So yesterday, she took her pocket money, went on the expedition to the shop by herself, and knocked on the door. 

She opened her mouth to try to speak but was immediately told…’Click and collect only’ – in that harsh and patronising voice that adults reserve particularly for exerting their power over young people. And the door was unceremoniously closed in her open-mouthed and disappointed face. 

My 11 year old has been lucky. She has not often had this sort of thing happen. Well, she probably has, plenty of times by us at home when we’re irritated at something she has or hasn’t done and mind-read her intentions…But this was a really resonant and penetrating experience for her. Coming face to face with her utter powerlessness against something she really wanted to do. Something kind and altruistic for me. Something good for the local shop which can only have sold a fraction of what it normally would.

The connection denied was, for her, like a slap in the face. And the inability to even get one word of self advocacy out felt cripplingly unfair. And of course when she came home, broken hearted and angry, there was a whole cocktail of powerful feelings that she was struggling to contain. It would have been so easy to ‘there there’ her and tell her it was OK, she did her best, it didn’t matter…when quite clearly it really really did.

It was also highly tempting to wade in with exactly what I thought of this florist, and how she’d never have my business again in the future. It was tempting to go to the shop and complain, or champion my little one’s case and return home triumphant with the butt-cheek tree…

But would that have been listening? It would have been a response certainly. But would it not also have underlined the voicelessness of the child? Would that response have been more about me, than about helping my lovely girl work through what this meant to her…

So this article is about listening. 3 things:

1. Listening is an investment. It’s about you paying attention…and think of that word and it’s aural double meaning…at tension…To hold the space for the tension, the lived experience being shared. Whether you are a parent or a teacher – a parental figure in the lives of children and teens in these troubled times…if you want to make a difference, these skills are for you.
2. Be willing and open to listen…easier said than done. How many times do we signal that we’re not…’listening’ when we’re really planning what to say, silver lining, minimizing what they are expressing, even denying that they ‘should’ be feeling the way they are, listening in order to catch them out (especially where there’s a pattern of challenging or problematic behaviour), mind reading – where we impute (bad) intention…especially toxic. What’s YOUR listening kryptonite?
3. Pay attention to what they are saying AND doing. This is a really potent one. It’s what I use all the time as a coach to really tune in to what’s going on for my clients. In my own parenting, I often miss this- we all do. But I can switch on this torch and it never fails to be massively helpful to shine new light on what might be happening.

Tuning in to the music beneath the lyrics…What this looks like…

  1. You need to listen to what they aren’t saying. Tune in to the non-verbal cues. 
  2. Read ‘connection moves’…these can be subtle and counter-intuitive – especially with teens. A ‘Connection move’ is an indication that they want our attention, they want our attuned presence…(or maybe pocket money!) Often it comes through actions, behaviour, body language, facial expressions.
  3. Actions and behaviours…Eye rolls, sass, slammed doors. Typically these tell that our child wants to be left alone or that they are annoyed…ANd we can attribute all sorts of scripts to this behaviour. But reading it more objectively, less reactively, the message is that this is not the time to talk. They need space, but it will be a good idea to circle back and check in to see if they are OK. Let them know what when they slammed that door, it seemed that there was something on their mind. Stay open and receptive…you might need to let the silence do some work while they assess whether it’s safe to articulate what was really going on. DON’T intrude with mind-reading, interpreting for them…you might suggest, or use labelling – but don’t be definitive…’It looked like something had really triggered you about what happened with your brother…’
  4. Labelling with curiosity, suggesting and checking rather than diagnosing reduces stress levels, reduces reactivity in the amygdala, and is an invitation to collaborate in figuring out together what was happening, and what was at stake for them.
  5. IF you notice that your kid is still eye rolling or showing irritation in their body language, turning away, looking away, then it’s a cue that you are not really listening…you might be trying to take charge, fix it…For sure, the feelings of psychological safety are not in place for this to be productive. If you keep pushing the conversation, their feelings that they are not being heard will accelerate. And maybe add to scripts about how you don’t listen, don’t understand…their needs don’t matter. You’re in a land of red mist and they will shut down the conversation from their end and you will not get the engagement you were seeking – whether it was an empathetic or corrective conversation.
  6. Look for mood swings that go above and beyond their normal tween / teen rollercoaster. IF your normally level child explodes because you asked them how school was, or you bought the wrong cereal…then it’s likely something is really stressing them out. Go for a low key connection move…’This isn’t like you…if you need someone to listen, I’m here’…
  7. Adolescents often have a difficult time initiating conversations…there are relatively few adolescents who have the self-possession to sit down with us and ask directly for our time / help…’I wondered if we could just discuss this problem I’ve been having with procrastination…’ No. Rather than engaging directly, they’ll hang around in the background. Before you make the joke about Kevin the Teenager….go into open, receptive mode…Put down your smartphone and connect. They are making a connection move…they are signalling they want to spend some time with you.
  8. Notice body language – the signals sent off by their body, posture, moisture around the eyes…Show that you notice and are there for them, but accept that they may not be ready to talk about it in the moment. Give them time and space. Ask them if there’s anything that they might need while they’re working it out…chocolate, crisps, magazine, hot water bottle? 
  9. Slumped posture…I was master of this…to the extent that I got sent to a specialist to assess me for scoliosis…Slumped body posture and poor eye contact may well be signs of self consciousness, stress, unhappiness….but it may also be a sign of being lost in thought…stay in connection, stay in touch, be curious rather than anxious about it, and resist the urge to tell them to sit up / stand up straight etc. This is a connection-blocker that will put them on the defensive and you won’t get anywhere near the sort of casual conversation that might help you tune in properly, and help them navigate what’s going on.
  10. Eye contact is another body language cue – but it is also a massive trigger with a lot of cultural baggage…Looking someone in the eye can be a cultural sign of defiance or a sign of respect and attention. How were we parented and schooled around the notion of giving or withdrawing eye contact? Bring what comes up for you into your thinking. What are your triggers there? And do they push or pull you into connection blocks or connection moves? What is the pattern and how is it serving you?

More on eye contact and listening with your eyes…

Some information around this may help: in general teens struggle with making eye contact – especially with adults – even parents.

They are still developing their self confidence and working out their comfort level with adults. Because of that, they may be avoidant of eye contact. This may not even be a conscious thing.

Teens and tweens are hypervigilant on matters to do with belonging and approval – especially from peers, but they are also very sensitive to threat of social risk of any kind. Prone to feeling embarrassment etc.

Various child development researchers have compared the early adolescent to war veterans who have PTSD – hypervigilant for facial signs of aggression – prone to misreading and anticipating threat or aggression where there is none. So they are not great at reading our faces.

We compound it by misreading theirs – especially when connections are frayed and there are patterns of conflict – whether it’s repeated small niggles or big explosions. Watch the scripts and stories that you are telling yourself about their eye contact / them…eg of disrespect….Don’t let them broaden and build into self-fulfilling prophecies of disconnection and misattunement. 

Instead, find opportunities to talk side-by-side. Do tasks together…especially where connections are frayed. Have some punctuation points in the routine where you will collaborate on something – washing the car, cooking, walking the dog together. Play a game, take a drive to the supermarket…where you are close enough to talk – but not adding the pressure of face to face. If there are things you need to correct in your relationship, it will become more possible from a baseline of connection.

It is important for you to read your child’s expression, and to help them learn to do the same. This is super-important now in our world of screens and masks. It’s a vital life-skill in order to achieve and sustain meaningful relationships. It’s something you can discuss with young children, tweens and teens – matching emotions to faces in images. There can be many answers. I remember doing an exercise with Professor Marc Brackett at Yale’s Emotional Intelligence Centre – he was trying to model calm, and we read his expression as arrogance!

Reading expressions isn’t easy. Putting things together with context helps- but it all takes experience. The important thing is to raise your awareness of how you perceive certain expressions and look at other perspectives.

An activity…Listening with your eyes  
From babies to teens…

A lovely thing to do with our youngest, is to lie close together, hold eye contact and mirror bodies – tuning in with the breath, breathing in sync. Mirroring movements. This can be still and deeply soothing and restful, or it can be playful and full of laughter and giggles. Even without words, we can listen to our bodies.

We can also do this with older children as a loving and fun way of coming into connection.

In school – where there are concerns about how lockdown experiences and the wearing of masks will potentially be inhibiting to good relationships and the social and emotional development of young people…A drama / form time game where in pairs, they mirror each others movements, and try to get as closely in sync as possible. Taking turns to lead / follow. Starting with body language, moving into looking closely at the face, head, eyes, forehead…A fertile and fun experience that can also prompt discussions around reflecting on emotions expressed non-verbally. What signals connection, what signals disconnection, attentiveness, disregard…

Good relationships are built on good interactions. We read each others bodies at a higher volume than we actually listen to each other’s words…Building awareness on listening and listening with the eyes can be engaging and empowering the skills we can bring to showing up for each other.

I hope this Mother’s Day edition resonates. Whether you come to this as parents, teachers, carers, leaders…Being able to read each other with our ears and eyes has always been a challenge and will continue to be a particular challenge for children and teens – especially teens who are trying to read each other and their teachers through the mask.I hope the concept of connection moves and connection blocks is a helpful one to help you check in on the quality of what you bring to interactions with your children…It’s something that has been in my mind often as I have been working on in webinars for schools as well as training for teachers around supporting better relationships.As always – with love and gratitude,Emma.

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