Active Listening in
Parent-Child Relationships

Genevieve Simperingham
Originally posted 01 Nov 2014

Why won’t my child listen to me?  Why won’t she open up when it’s obvious that something’s bothering her?  Why does he answer back?  Why does she shout rather than talk when she gets upset?  Why does he lash out when frustrated rather than seeking my support?

Active Listening – a communication skill that can bring greater connection, cooperation, clarity and understanding to relationships.

Parents are often baffled to see their child being defiant, uncooperative or becoming verbally or physically aggressive rather than talk about their feelings.   They can’t understand why their child will shut down and refuse to speak or interact when they’re clearly troubled.  Parents know how much they love their child and hope or expect that their child can trust that they can turn to their parent for comfort.  Yet, many of the responses from parents to children when a child needs to feel heard, including very well meaning advice, inadvertently gives children the message that their feelings are not valued, cared for or understood.

Active listening is a skill that anyone can learn and, when practiced, can truly transform how your children talk to you, listen to you and generally improve the quality of communication and co-operation between you.  Active listening tends to result in the connection, the trust and hence the flow of communication opening up, sometimes deepening, sometimes becoming lighter, but certainly moving at least a couple of steps from disharmony to harmony.

Children listen to us more or less as well as they feel listened to.  Probably the number one top complaint of parents is that their child “won’t listen” to them, but what if the child’s refusal or disinterest in listening to us is an indicator that, quite often, they don’t feel very good when listening to us, resulting in some breakdown of the communication.  It’s hard to relate to our child’s feelings and frustrations when we feel ignored by our child or feel that our child is purposely fighting us.  Yet, it’s when we can see past their refusal to cooperate and try to relate to what feelings they may be showing us that things can start to move from stuck back to open connected communication that works for parent and child!

What helps you feel seen, heard and understood?  To gain some insight into your child’s world, perhaps first think about this from your own perspective:  Bring to mind a relationship where you struggle to get your point of view across, a relationship that always feels like a one way communication, even when they listen, you can tell they’re not really listening, that they’re amped to jump back in and get their point of view across, to give advice, to correct or criticize you (perhaps subtly) and generally always bring the communication back to their thoughts, feelings and opinions. You might wish they could show genuine interest in hearing and understanding your perspective.  Notice how you feel when thinking about this person and these interactions.  If you were to need this person’s help or co-operation, what thoughts would come up for you?   Possibly, you’d rather not need them at all and if you do need to ask their help or advice, you would probably already feel defensive and quite stressed.

Now think about the person who always shows genuine interest in your point of view, in your experiences and feelings and gives you positive reflections.  Think about how you feel if you need to seek their help?  Much calmer?  If you think about the messages you receive from these different experiences, you’ll no doubt gain some valuable experience-based insights into what active listening is and is not. These insights are way more valuable than anything you can read on the subject!

Love is not enough, we need communication skills.  The difference between these two different interactions probably has a lot to do with whether a certain person can practice active listening or not.

What is Active Listening?  What does it look like in a conversation? What improvements will likely happen in my family interactions if I can learn to apply it?

When active listening, the listener resists the temptation to make the assumption 
that they already know what the speaker is trying to say.  It’s easy to think “oh I’ve heard this before” or “I know what you should do”, “yeah right, as if you’re so innocent in this” or “come on get to the bottom line”.  Such thoughts make it difficult to properly hear and interpret the speaker’s words and can deny both parties the opportunity for deeper understanding and to resolve potential misunderstandings.  Mostly when people are speaking, they are showing feelings, not just information and facts.  When the listener responds back to the facts while ignoring the feelings, this can leave the speaker with an unsatisfied sense that their feelings haven’t been seen, understood or cared about (empathized with) hence leading to tension between listener and speaker. This can subsequently make it more difficult for the speaker to then listen actively when it’s their turn to listen.

Yet when the listener has tuned in to the feelings being expressed, as well as the information and facts, and shows a good attempt to acknowledge those feelings (“oh I can well imagine why you found that so frustrating”), then the speaker (be they a child or an adult) may gain more satisfaction and hence in turn feel more open and positive as the communication continues.

Good communication depends on clear coherent feedback.  People often listen passively, not giving any feedback to the speaker about whether they are accepting or understanding what’s been spoken.  When the speaker either doesn’t receive feedback, be it verbal or non-verbal, this can add to the tensions between speaker and listener.  With active listening, the listener reflects to the speaker while they’re still speaking that they are fully listening, this can involve sounds like “mmm”, “yea”, “ok”, “aahh” and it can also be reflected through eye contact, nodding the head and body language that shows patience, presence and interest.  The listener can then reflect verbally what they think they’ve understood and then give the speaker a chance to clarify or further explain; for example “ok what I think I understand from what you’ve said is that … this happened, then this happened …, which led to you feeling …. and what you now need is for …….  Does that sound right?”.

Active listening can deepen the bond, the trust, the mutual respect and mutual understanding in relationships.  Children from birth onwards need and benefit hugely from active listening. With active listening, the listener gives their full attention to the speaker.  They show the speaker that they are truly present, as opposed to half listening or impatiently waiting to jump in with what they have to say.  The majority of communication between people is non-verbal, maybe about 92%, which is why it works so well with babies who are pre-verbal as well as older children and not to mention partners!

Active listening promotes a deeper level of empathy and attunement in that when the listener is fully present and receptive, they tend to become more attuned with the speaker and pick up on a lot more of the non-verbal communication, tone of voice, eye contact, facial expressions, body language and notice what’s not being said through hesitation in the voice, etc. It’s all too easy to view communication in terms of the relaying of facts and ignore the all important emotional information.

When a parent uses active listening, children generally feel more supported and less controlled.  It’s hard for parents to resist giving endless advice and lectures as they feel the huge responsibility of teaching their child. Believe me I know this so well, 16 years down the parenting path I still have to edit what moves from my thoughts to my words, it’s a feeling of pulling in my own reins! Yet, children, like us adults, benefit from the opportunity to work things out as they speak, they like to self-correct and develop self-discipline.  A great way to support our child’s self-confidence and self-competence is to hold back the advice and replace it with active listening as often as possible.  Your time and patience will soon start to pay off as you notice your child taking more responsibility and using these listening skills that you’ve modelled.  By slowing down the communication and resisting giving advice and solutions, parents also give the message to their child that they trust them to find their own solutions and trust them to ask for and access as much or as little help as they need.

With active listening, the listener becomes more present and really allows the communication to slow down.  Generally, as tensions rise in an interaction, the communication speeds up making it less and less likely that either party will end up feeling heard, understood, trusted or supported.  Active Listening creates more time, more presence and more spaciousness to the communication de-escalating stress and increasing mutual listening.

This slowing down process helps children to feel more safe and secure in the parent child relationship in general, it lowers rather than raises a child’s stress levels.  Children can only really access their more logical thinking when they feel safe and secure.  Children need a lot more time than adults to process their thoughts, feelings and needs, they need more time to communicate, to express themselves.  When parents expect their children to think, express and act at an adult pace, children can easily become discouraged and shut down, they can either give up trying to express their real feelings and needs, this is often when they become very resistant, or the other reaction of becoming aggressive and perhaps shouting or demanding or starting a fight with their sibling.

A parent can shift gear into using active listening at any point in an interaction.  Many parents when first learning these new communication skills, don’t remember to use active listening until they can see that things are going down hill in a particular interaction, their child is becoming upset or resistant, so they see this as their cue to start using active listening.  Active listening can start with reflecting the parent’s reading of the feelings their child is expressing and reflecting that back; “hmm it looks like you’re finding it hard to hear what I’m asking you to do this morning? Does that sound right?” Once the communication develops, it can help to ask your child “hmm what do you need my sweetheart?”. I’m a big fan of terms of endearment for expressing love and affection and messages that we’re not annoyed at our child in that moment.

To gain a more comprehensive understanding of active listening and it’s application as a parent, I highly recommend reading “Parent Effectiveness Training by Thomas Gordon.  Here’s a quote from the book relating to active listening; “Paradoxically, this method will increase the parent’s influence on the child, but it is an influence that differs from the kind that most parents try to exert over their children.  Active listening is a method of influencing children to find their own solutions to their own problems.  Most parents, however, are tempted to take over ownership of their children’s problems.”


Genevieve is an international speaker, group facilitator, parent coach, holistic counsellor, an energy healer, and a writer. She is a contributor of The Natural Parent Magazine, Kiwi Families’ online resource and Kindred magazine. 

Reprinted with permission from 

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