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Listening to children

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Last week, we discussed promoting mental health and wellbeing and responding to adversities and stress. Children and adults are constantly building promotive factors, such as social emotional skills and strong relationships, to maintain wellbeing. When stressful situations arise, we can respond to lessen the potential negative effects. We can do this by leveraging existing competencies and supports that are particularly important in a challenging situation. In this step, we discuss an important promotion and mitigation factor – listening to children.

Listening to children and creating opportunities for them to express their thoughts and feelings can promote wellbeing. Listening builds strong relationships and creates a safe environment for children to communicate their wants, needs, and perspectives. Listening is something adults can do every day, no matter the situation, to support healthy social and emotional development.

When children are facing a big life change or transition, listening to them can serve as a response mechanism. As children experience a stressful event and have different emotional and physical responses to it, a safe environment in which they can process feelings with a trusted adult is an important outlet that can reduce the likelihood of long-term negative effects. Adults can encourage children to talk openly and honestly about their feelings by reacting in a supportive way without shame, blame, or judgment.

Listening to children has many positive benefits, especially to help children cope with change. Two key benefits are:

  1. Emotions = Needs = Support:

    Emotions are ways of expressing needs. When children have opportunities to talk openly about their feelings, adults are better able to identify and understand the underlying needs. When adults know the needs, they can provide support to address those needs. By listening carefully to children, adults can meet urgent needs and help children to respond positively to change or transition.

  2. Support = Resilience:

    As mentioned in Unit 3, resilience is the capacity of the whole system around an individual to adapt to change. This includes the individual’s own coping mechanisms and access to healthy relationships, among other things. When adults listen to children and respond in a supportive way, they are building resilience by building positive, supportive relationships which an enable an individual to respond to change and uncertainty. Safe opportunities for emotional expression and support are crucial to demonstrating resilience.

Listening has clear benefits for children, yet it can be difficult to do, especially when adults can’t change the overall situation or are themselves facing stressful events. For adults looking to provide support, an easy adage to remember is that “not everything needs to be (or can be) fixed”. For instance, in the situation where schools are closed indefinitely and a child is sad or angry about missing their friends, adults can respond by acknowledging that it is a frustrating and difficult experience.

Validating children’s feelings – even when you can’t change the situation – helps children to feel understood and builds trust in the relationship. Non-judgemental listening also encourages children to come back to adults to discuss other feelings or experiences. Alternatively, when children’s feelings are dismissed or are met with hostility, they may struggle to communicate needs in the future, due to a fear of being punished or shamed. This may prevent adults from effectively understanding or supporting them during times of great need.

Listening is a critical tool for understanding and building relationships with children, and for identifying children’s needs and potential supports. Listening to children is key in every-day interactions, and is especially important during times of crisis or transition.

Practice listening to the children in your life by asking them what they are feeling and providing a listening ear without judging.

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