Listening: Modeling this behavior encourages its use by children

Listening to children’s emotions can lead to understanding and an improved relationship; explore suggestions to encourage this behavior in children.

“Just listen to me!” How many times do parents and caregivers say (or think about saying) that to a child. Many of us simply want children to pay close attention, anticipate our next move and do what we ask them to do. If only they would listen!

Modeling good listening skills is the first step in teaching children “how to listen.” When was the last time you really listened to a child with your full attention and understanding?

When listening to children, it is important to decipher whether the child is asking for emotional support or if he needs information. When a child is looking for information, he will often use words such as “who, what, where, when, how” and “why.” If a child uses other words, he is probably not looking for information. A child who whines, “I want my doll,” may be dismayed or sad because the toy was left somewhere and is not readily accessible. If the same child cries, “Where is my doll,” she is seeking information on the doll’s location. Your response can make a difference in subsequent interactions. Telling a tired child to find the toy herself may set off an irreversible temper tantrum. Asking the child if she needs assistance in finding the doll may give you information for next steps.

Being a good listener is the first step in determining how to respond to your child providing the type of support he needs and helping him to develop emotional literacy. The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Literacy at Vanderbilt University defines emotional literacy as “the ability to identify, understand and respond to emotions in oneself and others in a healthy manner.” The center recommends three easy strategies to foster emotional literacy in young children:

Express your own emotions
Talk out loud using descriptive words and phrases that discuss how you’re feeling; “I am so sad that we can’t see Grandma this weekend.” “It is so frustrating when I can’t thread a needle without my glasses.” “I’m proud that I finished all my cleaning and now have time to bake some cookies.” Model the behavior you’d like to see from children when you are teaching them good listening skills.

Empathize out loud as you see others experiencing strong emotions: “I see that Mrs. Smith is sad because her daughter had to return to college.” When you model empathy and respect for others, your child will learn similar skills as she develops her own emotional literacy.

Label children’s feelings
Give the feeling a name: angry; sad; glad; frustrated; happy; excited. Identify the feeling that you believe that the child is experiencing. When you hear the feeling, use the word in a sentence that reflects what the child is feeling: “You seem frustrated that you don’t have your doll.” When you give a feeling a name, you are assisting your child in building an emotional vocabulary.

An emotional vocabulary is an important piece in the foundation of emotional intelligence. Children need an emotional vocabulary to be able to label the large array of emotions they will encounter as they grow and develop. Talking out loud about emotions, what triggered the emotion and making note of when they are no longer angry, sad or scared can help children understand that emotions come and go, and are normal. “You were scared when you heard the police car with the siren coming up so fast behind us. The police must have been on the way to help someone, so we drove to the side of the road to make room. I get scared when I hear that noise, too.”

Share songs, games and stories
Discuss feelings by introducing them through children’s books, simple songs and easy games. Games like “guess what face I’m making” are simple and fun. When reading to children, ask them what they think the main character is feeling or what his face is telling you. Take a field trip to your local library to find children’s books that teach about feelings. Two books you may want to explore are “When You’re Happy: And You Know It” by Elizabeth Crary, and“The Way I Feel” by Janan Cain.

Teaching good listening skills is one step in building a foundation for a child’s ability to control emotions, develop and nurture relationships, interact in a healthy manner with others, and become a problem solver. It is one of several key areas of development during a child’s early years.

For more articles on child development, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.


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