By showing reflective listening, or commenting on a child's behavior, emotions, and their experiences without judgment and evaluations you provide them with psychological support they need in stressful situations. Being attentive and recognizing verbally how the child feels and behaves might help you alleviate your child’s emotional stress and resolve emerging conflicts, reach mutual understanding and feel mutual acceptance, build a healthier relationship between parents and children. By doing so you communicate the child a message that you are listening and hearing them and trying to understand and show support. Here are some examples:
Reflective listening helps you understand the true message that the child (or any other interlocutor) wants to convey to you. In the process of communication, refrain from:
For example, you can start your sentence by saying “It sounds like you are saying ….”
Rules for reflective listening:
Take the correct posture. Sit next to or across from the child (squat down with the child / hold them in your lap), so that your eyes are at the same level;
Do not be scared of pauses. After each child's answer, do not rush to comment and express your thoughts on the issue of the discussion. Take a short pause before saying something. This time is necessary so that the child can comprehend their experiences and feel that you are with them even more;
Paraphrase and repeat what the child said in the same emotional state the child did. This will allow you to clarify whether you understood the child correctly, and the child will understand that you heard them.
For example, a child comes to you and says "I don't want to be friends with my brother." Repeat what you heard expressing the same emotion your child showed to you: “you don’t want to play with your brother”.
Let the child know that you know about their experience/state by verbalizing the feeling that the child is most likely experiencing at the moment. Do not ask questions, your comments must be statements. It is hard to show empathy with questions.
For example, a child comes to you and says "I don't want to be friends with my brother." You can ask them questions like “What happened?”, “Are you offended by him?”. However, at this point you will not give the child an opportunity to reflect on their emotions, feelings, experiences. Instead the child will be in the position of the respondent rather than equal contributor and leader of the conversation.
Try to say: “You don’t want to play with him. You must be feeling hurt”
Another example can be where a child cries and says they want to go home. Try to say “you are very upset, you want to go home” first instead of asking “why do you want to go home?”
Commenting on the child’s behavior also helps the child understand that you are nearby, you are interested in what they are doing, this is important for you, and at the same time you don’t want to impose your own rules, opinions on the child, you don’t want to moralize, you are a close adult who can be trusted, who hears, understands and accepts the child. Also, an adult's commentary speech allows the child to better focus on what they are doing and associate the actions with the right vocabulary. This is also a way to model to the child how to describe things which eventually will help them to speak about themselves, things, events, and other people around them on a more advanced level.
For example, a child wants to find something in a suitcase.
The child opens the suitcase. You say: “you opened the suitcase”;
The child took clothes out of the suitcase and put them next to him. You can say: “you took the clothes out and put them aside. You don’t need them”;
The child found their toy in the suitcase, You can say: “you found the bear!”.
Not all children are the same developmental level. Some of them have reduced receptive and expressive language. In this case you can still work on reflective listening but try to use the length of the phrases your child understands. For example, one of my clients reported having a very tense relationship with her son. Every time she asked him to do something, he would show a tantrum to the point that she started feeling abusive. She was very sad that their relationship looks broken. According to her, he did not want to do anything she asked him to do. Instead, it looked like that she was a source of his tears, anger, and frustration. Reducing the number of instructions towards him and introducing commenting on his behavior and emotions helped them to mend their relationship. Whenever it was his leisure time she joined him by saying something like “it is a book”, “ you flipped the page”, “happy, you are looking happy”, “you are smiling”, “you are sad”, “elephant” (pointing to the elephant in a book), “you are sitting”, “you are watching TV”, “you are looking at me”. Only after a week of commenting on his behavior and emotions did she share very pleasant news with me. Her son started looking at her more often, he started establishing eye contact with her more often, he stopped walking away from her every time she joined him during his leisure activities, he started inviting her into his leisure. After two more weeks he started speaking one-two word phrases more often. He was more happy to see her. It became easier for them to negotiate their schedule. His tantrums have reduced. She started feeling happier.
Children's challenging behavior is a sign of them struggling with understanding and regulating emotions. Therefore, they might need adults’ help. When adults connect to children’s emotions by providing empathic understanding, it has a calming effect, also called as co-regulation. This co-regulation allows children to learn skills in emotional competence. Very often behavior problems reduce or stop when humans feel emotional acceptance and that they are understood.