Listening through children's big emotions, or ‘Staylistening’, is not something we do well as a society. As an adult, if I've had a hard day and need a rant, I expect my other half to hear me out, to respect that I know myself well and that I will find a way through it, and to offer support and empathy in my moment of emotional need. I do not expect him to tell me to stop making such a fuss, or to 'listen to how ridiculous I sound', or to snap at me angrily and walk away. I don't expect this because it is neither respectful nor helpful - after all, each of us is entitled to our upsets, and letting our emotions out in a safe and appropriate space, with a supportive listener, is our body's way of working through our tensions and stresses to enable us to let them go. But this is exactly what we, as a society, don't allow for our children; our children, who need this respectful listening at least as much as we adults do. Yet the prevailing culture tells us that a child having a 'tantrum' is manipulating us, or overreacting, or just tired, or just hungry, or… Anything but working through and expelling some of their big emotions in the extremely effective way they are wired to do.
Children want to be cooperative, and be connected to us, if they possibly can; if they can't, it's because they are not able to think clearly - they have some big emotions stuck in their limbic (emotional) brain, which are blocking their rational brain from clear thought. If we can allow them to work through those emotions, without judging, analysing, rationalising or fixing, they can shed those difficult feelings, and get back to their usual cooperative, happy self.
I hope the following story is a useful one, in seeing how helpful supporting the emotion-clearing process can be - with just some time, and some respectful, empathic listening:
Our oldest child (aged 7 at the time of this incident) has Asperger's syndrome. In amongst his many strengths, he finds some things particularly difficult, and one of those is when play doesn't go his way. On this particular day, all of the children were in high spirits, as their grandma was over for one of her fortnightly visits. They had had some fairly chilled out play all together with grandma, doing a role play activity and snacking, and then they all went outside. On the trampoline. Eek! Emotions can really run high on there, and sure enough, on this day they did!
I'd left them pretty much to it, but I could see (and hear!!) them from the kitchen window. All of the children wanted to choose a game to play, and they all had clear ideas of what they wanted. Their grandma felt that in order to move forward with things, and keep the play going, the children should have timed turns* for playing their own choice of game, and everyone was in agreement with that. They began to play, with our oldest child getting the first turn. They just about made it through one set of turns, but tensions were starting to rise - particularly with the oldest. First, there was some fussing about how short his turn was, and although he managed to join in with the others' turns, he was argumentative about their rules, and was starting to use insulting language about how 'stupid' their games were**. He clearly wasn't enjoying himself much at this point!
Anyway, their grandma managed to settle things down a bit, so that each of the children made it through their turn. I left them to it, but continued my close watch on how things were panning out. They soon reached a point where grandma was wanting to bring things to a close, so they were to have one last turn each of choosing the game. But at this point, there was some sort of misunderstanding about the rules in our oldest's turn - his grandma felt he'd added an extra rule in the middle of the game (so that he wouldn't be 'out'!), but he said he'd already told her about that rule and that she just hadn't heard.
He began to get very upset - he was soon screaming about how unfair it was, and shouting at his grandma that she was wrong. She stayed calm and restated her point - which of course he was not able to process at all at that time! He even went to push/hit her, although pulled back a bit at the last moment. This, along with the shouting, is not something their grandparents have really had to experience yet, so I really felt like she'd created a lot of safety for him in terms of allowing him to have those big feelings.
I went out and he came straight to me, and the anger turned to tears. This was noteworthy for us, as he generally expresses his feelings through anger. He began telling me what his grandma had done, how she had got angry (from what I could hear, she wasn't being playful at that point, but I had noted no anger in her voice), and how it wasn't fair, she was lying, she hadn't listened, and so on. Often at this point, if I speak (no matter what I say it would seem!), he moves back to anger and it often then becomes directed at me (one of his safest targets!). But it didn't turn to me this time - even though I gave some occasional verbal reassurances. We went inside, and sat together on the sofa. He carried on crying, called his grandma an idiot, and told me that he would never see her again, that he would take his meals up to his room when she was here, and that she was angry with him. There were lots of tears when he said these last words.
I am learning so much about how to respond to him as an individual in these moments - he is very different to our other two children (although admittedly they too are different from each other). I am slowly learning to give very minimal verbal input, to be available for eye contact when our oldest is crying (but not forcing it), to try rough and tumble to get to laughter when he's angry, and to try bringing him back from the brink by engaging his rational brain if he's flooded with emotions. While this last is not an effective way to help him release any tensions he's carrying in his limbic brain, once he's past the 'feel the fear' stage, and moved into 'cornered wild animal' stage (i.e. flooded), he is not able to release effectively anyway - it is then important to get him back from that extremely anxious place.
I am also learning so much about how to listen empathically. Before I starting using the Hand in Hand Parenting tools, I would have felt that I needed to defend his grandma, or explain what had happened, or even focus on how he 'shouldn't be speaking that way' about her. And I still do these things more often than I would like - I'm a work in progress! But it's so effective not to do these things, and so worth working on.
So I just listened. I sat next to him, and kept looking at him - trying to make some eye contact but not forcing it, as that's hard for him. At one point he actually sought out my eyes and silently looked deep into them, as if to say 'do you really understand me?' and he started crying hard again at that point, so I felt he knew that he was safe and understood. I said a few mildly reassuring words very occasionally, and I kept it very low key. It's really easy to move him away from feelings and back into anger, as I believe he's too afraid to feel the real issues which lie underneath his anger, and if I say too much he gets very defensive. I said things like 'That sounds really tough' 'I'm sorry that happened' or just a simple, understanding 'Yeah'.
After a while he quieted a bit, and stopped crying. As it was nearly teatime by that point, I decided to leave things where they were; even though I felt there might have been more emotion to come, it felt like the right moment to move on. There was a little discussion about whether he'd be in the kitchen with me or not as he didn't want to see his grandma, and he was adamant then that he'd never want to see her again, or have her see him. I just said 'Mmm' and other low-key words, but I didn't try to talk him out of it. I was really focused on him feeling heard; I didn't need to fix anything, and deep down he is secure in his grandma's love for him - he would work his way back there in his own time.
It took about half an hour to get tea ready, and he was in the garden that whole time (the others had come in by this point), making a 'surprise' for his siblings - I had to assure him that his grandma would stay in the lounge, as he still didn't want to see her. Once his 'surprise' (he'd built them a little bamboo shelter at the bottom of the garden!) was ready, he came in. He asked me what was for tea, and then asked me about something else. He then realised from my response ('I haven't got to that yet, I'm just focusing on the tea right now' or something similar) that I was rushing to get something done, and he spontaneously actually offered to help me. I was surprised - not because he isn't helpful as a rule when asked (he generally is), but that usually his thinking doesn't allow him to look so outwardly and see that 'ooh, that person has needs right now, maybe I could do something'. He was super helpful to me then, offering to set the table, taking messages to his siblings (into the room where his grandma was, and then even to his grandma directly!), asking for something by saying 'Can I have that after you' (he isn't usually able to ask so reasonably, because he's generally overwhelmed at not being able to have the desired item immediately). We then all (!) sat at table for our tea, chatting and laughing - and afterwards only grandma would do for helping our oldest get ready for bed, and for reading a bedtime story to him!
From past experience of dealing with issues like this via distraction, anger or some other way of shutting our child's emotions down, I'm sure that he would have stayed in a 'sulk', not been able to think clearly and help me, and certainly not chosen to come to the table with all of us for tea. But once he felt safe and listened to, and was able to express how he was feeling, he was easily able to remember his grandma's love for him (and his love for her!), and get back to clear thinking and enjoying himself. This is the value of listening and empathising, instead of trying to fix, distract or rationalise!
*Just a note about 'turns' - we tend not to bring an adult-chosen limit to situations like this (read more here for some background on this), as children will learn so much more from being supported in establishing their own solutions to this sort of problem. But sometimes for convenience, or just because we don't have the resources at the time to support the problem-solving efforts, this is a viable option to choose.
**With many children I would recommend that you bring a Loving Limit at this point. We are currently actively working on some of the issues which I could see were arising, so I will sometimes let things move on further than I normally would in order to support the children's development in dealing with the issues we are focusing on.
Other resources which you might find useful
- "I swore I'd never say that" On being a parent - how we need support for ourselves through the hard work we do as parents