Learning to Listen

Our 6-week parenting workshop is helping us become more compassionate, effective parents

Last week I attended the first of six parenting workshops led by Susan Nason at Seleni. Susan's workshops are based on the bestselling book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, and I was surprised by how much I learned in just an hour and a half. She created a very warm environment in which we all felt comfortable sharing stories about our children and our struggles.

Her goal as a parenting coach is to help parents improve their communication skills, and she does that with all the patience and understanding she wants us to show our children. "Be gentle with yourselves when you get home," she told us. "You are learning a whole new language and you will make mistakes. This takes time and practice."

Here are just a few things workshop participants will be practicing in the upcoming weeks:

Acknowledging our children's feelings. A lot of us skip this step and head straight to problem solving (which is understandable to any parent whose ever tried to get dinner on the table while a 3-year-old is having a meltdown). But when we skip the step of acknowledging feelings, Nason explains that children feel dismissed and misunderstood. This can make them shut down and withhold their thoughts and emotions from us.

Susan gave us examples of children expressing their feelings (for instance a child saying, "I want to punch Michael in the face") and then asked us to identify the child's emotions. It was quickly obvious how much we – caring, engaged parents – wanted to fix the problem and move on. Many of us immediately came up with responses such as, "We do not punch in this house" or "Would you like it if a friend punched you?"

What Susan wanted us to do was stop, take a moment and let the child know we were listening to him with a simple sentence like, "It sounds like you are very angry with Michael." Such a simple step, but so easy to skip.

Trying to remember the mantra: "If it's hysterical, then it's historical." When we react strongly to something our child does, Susan reminds us that it probably means the conflict touches on an experience from our own childhood. When we realize that, we can take a step back and recognize what is happening, which will help us react more consciously to similar conflicts in the future.

Paying attention to our tolerance levels and how they relate to our patterns and our children's patterns. Do things escalate to conflict easily when we are hungry or tired or when our children are? Noticing what things lay the groundwork for a meltdown on both sides enables us to avoid setting ourselves up for screams and tears.

Working with Susan and the other parents, I was struck by how simple these changes sound. But I know it will take time and patience to make them a natural part of our parenting. I look forward to seeing the changes in my family and my parenting as they do. I hope you'll join me.