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How Active Listening Creates Emotionally Intelligent Kids

Why you should stop telling your kids they're okay

Published on: December 04, 2017

toddler-throwing-a-tantrum

I often catch myself telling my son that "it's okay" or "you're okay." Although he can’t speak yet, I know it’s time to nix that habit. I want him to know I understand that something is wrong and that I care enough to listen to what it is.

As parents, it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming we know what our kids are thinking or feeling, or why they’re misbehaving. But in their book “The Whole Brain Child,” authors Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson explore the importance of listening, rather than telling our kids how they think or feel.

The book explains that a child’s brain isn’t fully developed until around the age of 25. Because of this, the areas of the brain that handle emotions aren’t yet integrated with the areas of the brain that control logic. This lack of integration leads to tantrums, meltdowns and feelings of being overwhelmed because the child simply can’t explain what’s wrong.

For example, when a 2 year old falls down and scrapes their knee, it can lead to a world-class breakdown. As the tantrum wears on, we know the child isn’t feeling pain any longer; there isn’t even a mark on their skin. It’s tempting to tell them “you’re okay,” but the tears will likely only increase in intensity. “You must just be tired,” you might say to them — and this may be true. But telling your child they’re okay is unlikely to be as effective as guiding them in conversation and listening to them.

Telling your child they’re okay is unlikely to be effective in stopping a tantrum

Here’s what I mean by guiding them in conversation; the toddler can’t effectively communicate that their fall scared them more than it hurt them. They need you to meet them on their level to help them understand their feelings. This can be accomplished by helping the child retell their story so that they can understand what happened to them. “You were running and then fell down didn’t you?” “Was that scary?” “Then what happened?” “Mommy picked you up and gave you a hug, huh?” “Did you get hurt?” “Does it still hurt?”

“Healing from a difficult experience emerges when the left side [of the brain] works with the right to tell our life stories. When children learn to pay attention to and share their own stories, they can respond in healthy ways to everything from a scraped elbow to a major loss or trauma,” Siegel explains in the book.

We can begin practicing communication and helping our children more fully integrate their brain from the time they’re babies. This becomes helpful as the child grows and faces more and more overwhelming situations: situations that to us, as adults, aren't overwhelming at all. 

Clinical social worker Danielle Cannon offers another example. Recently, she asked her son to clean his room. Hours later, the room wasn’t clean and she told her son that his room needed to be cleaned right now. After a short time, her son came blowing out of his room, furious with her, and hurling accusations of her not being fair and never listening to him. Rather than dismissing his irrational claims, Cannon was able to identify some valid feelings.

She realized that her son was overwhelmed, so she helped him put words to his feelings. “I can see you are angry, is it possible that you’re overwhelmed?” “Do you understand what I mean by clean your room?” “How about we just break it into a couple of chunks and I’ll help you tackle it that way?” The messy room was a big task and he didn’t know where to start.

When Cannon calmly explained that she wanted him to pick up his dirty laundry, throw out any trash and pick up his toys, the situation became much more bearable and he realized that he was capable of accomplishing this task.

Of course, it’s challenging to remain cool and collected even as adults — especially when we’re facing an epic meltdown. But practicing guided communication and active listening can teach our kids critical strategies for coping with big feelings at any age.

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