As parents we tend to get really excited when our children achieve new milestones: crawling, walking, first words. Being able to engage in two-way conversations can be a relief, and we (mistakenly) expect to fully understand our kids by listening to what they say. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. Children will rely on adults for help interpreting their experiences well into their teens and beyond. It’s not a problem of communication, but an ongoing process to understand their emotions and the choices they make in response. Our job is to listen more deeply to understand underlying feelings and needs.
The other day I preemptively let my daughter know that it was a nap day, to which she responded, “I hate taking a nap! I can’t fall asleep. I close my eyes and they just open again.” Now, this was a familiar situation in our house, this was her usual response, and I gave my typical reasons for the nap: I could see her body was tired, her mood was grumpier, and that she would feel much better afterward. But I realized having this argument never got us anywhere, and usually impaired our relationship. So I broke the pattern and asked a question: “What is so bad about taking a nap?”
This open-ended question brought a whole new perspective: “When I take a nap I don’t have any time to play alone. My brother is right there following me because he loves me, but I just want to play alone for a while.” Bingo! Rather than continuing my lecture of what I assumed she needed (physical rest, peace, quiet) I listened to her own words and interpreted them to discover other needs (independence, self-expression, consideration). Children are still developing their vocabulary and need our help to understand their own experiences.
As our conversation continued I validated her needs, empathizing with her frustration and irritation at losing play time, and offered a new plan that could work for both of us: “How about I wake you up so you have at least 45 minutes before your brother gets up, and you get to choose how you play. Does that sound alright?” We fine-tuned the agreement, she made a wish list of activities, and after the conversation I noted how relaxed, satisfied, and even pleased she seemed with the plan. It was much easier for her to close her eyes (and keep them closed) when her inner turmoil was replaced by inner calm. When we invite children to explore what they need, we can create a more meaningful solution together.
Now, when we had been in this particular struggle before, I handled it very differently: demanding she just lay down, threatening to skip a treat, leaving her to sulk on her own. But reacting with scorn, power, or neglect caused me to be dysregulated, and left my daughter with no emotional guide. Another big difference in my recent approach was that I committed to being fully present, finding my calm, and remaining clear-hearted so I could join my daughter and support her in a more connected way. Children rely on the safety and security of trusted caregivers to learn how to regulate their emotions, over and over again, until they develop the capacity to do so independently.
Regardless of how old or how well-spoken your kids are, I challenge you to listen more deeply to the unspoken message underneath their words. What is she needing? What is he seeking or avoiding? I invite you to respond with curiosity. By intentionally seeking your children’s perspective you make them feel safe, build trust, and offer them the chance to truly be heard.
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