Parents, it’s important to learn to listen to your child non-defensively. This means you take in what they are saying and accept their words without pushing back against them.
This is difficult, as most of us feel very defensive about our parenting. When a child tells us we upset them, we want to fight back and protect our right to parent as we see fit.
But a child’s deepest wish is to be truly seen, heard, and nurtured by their parent. When we respond to a child’s complaint with defensiveness, we cannot meet their fundamental need to feel loved and accepted.
When we listen to our child non-defensively, we’re embarking on a practice. It’s not something that we have to “master” or “perfect.” It’s OK to try our best and try again and again.
Here are the steps to listen to your child non-defensively:
When stuck in a loop of defensive listening, it can take time to learn to listen to your child non-defensively. It will also take them some time to trust that you won’t get defensive. Here are the steps to listen to your child non-defensively:
- Recognize that your child is making a complaint
- Take a deep breath and acknowledge your desire to fight back
- Say something that invites them to explain more
- Listen with compassion and patience
- Respond by acknowledging their feelings
- Tell them what you will do next
Most of us naturally tend towards defensive communication. Our society and parenting practices indoctrinate us into a system of power struggles between parent and child. Defensive communication is so common that we rarely recognize that we have the power to change the dynamic and improve our lives.
Signs that you may need to listen to your child non-defensively:
When you haven’t learned to listen to your child non-defensively, you may see some signs of distress in your child and yourself. It’s disruptive and uncomfortable, and it’s a symptom of a relationship that needs repair. Here are the signs that you need to learn to listen to your child non-defensively:
- It seems impossible to have a rational conversation with your child
- Talking to your child usually results in someone getting mad and/or screaming and/or crying
- Your child accuses you of dominating and not understanding their needs
- Your child stops talking to you altogether
- Conversations quickly turn to contempt and blaming
Let’s take a deeper dive into how we can practice non-defensive listening with our children.
1. Recognize that your child is making a complaint
We can’t interrupt and change a pattern unless we can recognize when it is happening. The first step in non-defensive listening is to recognize that our child has just made a complaint.
This is important because when children complain, parents immediately become defensive. Rather than fall into our usual habit of defending our right-ness, parents who recognize a child’s complaint can reduce their frequency and intensity.
Children rarely make direct complaints of their parents. If they do, that’s easy! But if your child is less confident, they may use behavior to make passive complaints. These are just as valid as direct complaints and include:
- Using more swear words than usual
- Ignoring you
- Stalling when asked to do something
- Pushing, throwing, kicking, etc.
- Refusing to cooperate or do something when asked.
It’s important to note that the last point – refusing to cooperate – includes dangerous behaviors such as eating disorders, substance use, sleeping all day, etc.
2. Take a deep breath and acknowledge your desire to fight back
Once you recognize that your child is making a complaint, take a deep breath. You need to create space between their behavior, which is instantly aggravating, and how you respond.
If you react before thinking and acknowledging your own response to their complaint, you will remain stuck in defensive communication.
Take a breath. On the in-breath say to yourself: this is hard. On the out-breath say to yourself: I know.
This is a mindfulness technique in which we acknowledge the difficulty of our situation and send ourselves compassion in the moment. Repeat this breathing technique throughout the conversation to help you stay present and aware.
3. Say something that invites them to explain more
You may need a few more minutes to breathe and gain your composure. Criticism is deeply triggering for most of us. So it helps to ask your child to tell you more about their complaint.
This may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s a powerful way to defuse tense situations. A complaint is essentially a way that our child is trying to tell us they need something. Give them the floor so that you can hear what they are actually asking for.
For example, if your child is refusing to do something, you can say “what does [doing the thing they’re resisting] mean to you?”
If a child is yelling obscenities, you can say “I can hear how angry you are. Can you tell me more about that?”
If you’re smirking right now, assuming this will not go well, that’s OK. Try it anyway. Just because something hasn’t worked in the past for you or you believe it will not work, try it anyway. If we have been in a pattern of defensive listening with our children, it will take time and practice for these conversations to flow. Keep trying!
4. Listen with compassion and patience
Most of us listen intending to respond. We spend the time while the other person is speaking coming up with our response. It feels like we are being more reasonable than the other person. We think if we just say the right thing in the right way, the conversation will resolve.
But conversations in which we are not listening to the other person – attending both to what is said, body language, and subtext – do not resolve.
We must practice listening to the person with an attitude of compassion and patience. We must listen to hear what they are trying to tell us.
Practice not even thinking about your response. Instead, think about what they are trying to communicate.
Our children almost invariably are complaining for a single reason: they feel we are not caring for them. Telling a person we care for them will not make them feel cared for. The only way a person will feel cared for is if we show them we care by listening.
5. Respond by acknowledging their feelings
Do not respond to your child’s complaint with justification for why you did what you did. Don’t respond with reasons your requests are reasonable and should be followed.
A child’s complaint is an exposure of their most vulnerable self. And our vulnerable selves are not looking for rationale and intellectualism. Our children are looking for us to see, hear, and nurture them.
We see, hear, and nurture a child by acknowledging their feelings.
When we accept a child’s feelings as valid and valuable, we transform their self-confidence. It may seem strange, but when we validate our children’s feelings, they complain less. They just need not try so hard when they feel justified for having feelings. Here are some ways to acknowledge and validate your child’s feelings:
- I hear you
- I get it. Let’s talk about this some more.
- It sounds like [recap their feelings*]
- Let me see if I understand. What you’re saying is [recap their feelings*]
- I can understand why this feels unfair
- It makes sense that you’re feeling this way
- Sometimes I miss the signals you’re sending me, and I’m sorry about that
- I’m sorry I said that to you. It sounds like it made you feel [recap their feelings*]
- It sounds like when I did that it made you feel [recap their feelings*]
*when you do this, pay careful attention to your own feelings. Make sure you are not feeling contempt for your child’s feelings. They will sense it immediately, and the conversation will devolve.
6. Tell them what you will do next
Once you have validated your child’s feelings, it’s time to move onto next steps. Our impulse is to clamp down and tell our child that they need to just get over it and/or do what we asked them to do. But a more effective approach is to let your child know what you will do next. Here’s an example:
- Your child threw a tantrum because you asked them to take out the trash.
- You listened and understand that the genuine issue is that your child feels you ask them to do more than their sibling.
- You validated your child for feeling indignation over the unfairness of chores.
- You say “OK, well I will pay attention to this, and I’d like you to keep talking to me about it. Let’s work together to see how we can maintain equity in our home.”
Notice: you are not saying that it’s true, you treat them unfairly. You are not taking the blame for being a terrible parent. Your child has feelings that are valid, and you’re treating them respectfully.
Now that you have gone through this, decide the best next course of action. Perhaps it is to still ask the child to take out the trash. In fact, they may do this easily and with little grumbling once they feel validated.
Maybe you will take the trash out together to repair the relationship and show them that you are committed to your relationship. You have lots of choices. Just remember that the relationship in this moment is more important than the actual task of taking out the trash.
Is this all a bunch of BS?
If you’re reading this and thinking that parents are getting “too soft” and that it’s all very ridiculous, that makes sense. Most of us are raised to believe that parents should put their relationships with their children first.
In fact, most of us are raised to believe that we should obey parents and parents should maintain their power in the relationship at all times. But take a glance at the “Signs that you may need to work on your non-defensive listening skills” listed above.
They are very unpleasant. Often they are even life threatening and could cause long-term complications for both our children and ourselves. Life is not easier when we try to control our children. In fact, life is awful when we try to control our kids.
Life is infinitely easier and more pleasant when we listen non-defensively and validate our kids’ feelings.
When we do this, we’re more likely to build a healthy environment for our children and increase the chances of our children maintaining close, healthy bonds to us for life.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.