Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your child’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship while building essential listening skills in your child.
Your child’s healthy development depends upon their growing ability to listen and understand what you and others are communicating. Listening skills can support your child’s ability to engage in healthy relationships, to focus, and to learn. For example, children need to successfully communicate with you and understand what you are saying to them for their very survival. They are busy learning words, so your conversations are supporting their language and brain development.
Now that they are moving and exploring, they need to listen to your instructions to stay safe. As in infancy, each time you are responsive to your child’s cries and needs showing them love and care, they feel understood and learn about the two-way nature of communication.
One-year-olds come to better understand themselves through their interactions with you and other caregivers. They are in the process of learning their strengths and limitations, why they feel the way they do, and how they relate to others. Parents and those in a parenting role share in this learning and exploration. This is a critical time to teach and practice listening skills.
Yet, we all face challenges when it comes to listening. With screens, including mobile devices, engaging us for hours of our day, opportunities to interact eye to eye with your child and exercise listening skills may be missed. Listening skills require other important skills like impulse control, focused attention, empathy, and nonverbal and verbal communication.
For parents or those in a parenting role, the key to many challenges, like building essential listening skills, is finding ways to communicate so that both your needs and your child’s needs are met. The steps below include specific and practical strategies to prepare you in growing this vital skill.
Children learn about who they are and how they relate to others through sensitive, caring interactions with you. These interactions impact their ability to listen, to communicate effectively, to learn about and manage their feelings, and to trust in you as a caregiver. They are becoming more mobile, and soon you’ll be faced with a fast-moving child who needs to follow your instructions to stay safe in your home. Your focus on listening and communicating with your child will lay a critical foundation of trusting interactions.
Today, in the short term, teaching skills to listen can create
- greater opportunities for connection, cooperation, and enjoyment;
- trust in each other that you have the competence to manage your relationships and responsibilities; and
- a sense of wellbeing and motivation to engage.
Tomorrow, in the long term, working on effective listening skills with your child
- develops a sense of safety, security, and a belief in self;
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships, and responsible decision making; and
- deepens family trust and intimacy.
This five-step process helps you and your child cultivate effective listening skills, a critical life skill. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Getting to Know and Understand Your Child’s Input
One-year-olds are starting to verbalize their needs by babbling, crying, and starting to use single words. Despite your child’s emerging ability to use words, continue to pay close attention to their facial expressions, movements, and sounds in order to work on understanding what they are trying to communicate. Your effort to learn from your child will create empathetic interactions that promote healthy listening skills in you and your child. In becoming sensitive to the nuances of your child’s verbal and nonverbal expressions, you
- are responding to their needs;
- are growing their trust in you, sense of safety, and sense of healthy relationships;
- are growing motivation for you and your child to work together;
- are improving your ability to communicate with one another;
- are growing your own and their self-control (to calm down when upset and focus their attention); and
- are modeling empathy and problem-solving skills.
- Each time there is an opportunity, ask your child, “How do you feel? How do you think I feel?” One-year-olds do not yet have a feelings vocabulary and are not able to describe their body sensations when they are upset or dealing with any big feeling. They will need your support to be successful.
- For example, if your child is making a disagreeable facial expression, say, “Freeze,” like a game. Pull out the mirror, ask them to repeat the face, and ask about what that facial expression represents. For example, “Your eyebrows are squished down, and there’s a line in your forehead. Are you feeling mad?”
- When reading books, look at the images of children or animals and guess the feelings by asking, “What do you think this character is feeling?”
- If your child is feeling unsure about how others are feeling — or buried in their own feelings — help them by sharing what you think others are feeling. You could say: “I wonder if that person is feeling sad because their head is hanging down and their mouth is frowning. Do you think they feel sad?” Or, “I think that person might be feeling angry because their face is red and their eyebrows are scrunched up. Do you think they feel angry?”
- Practicing naming emotions will enable your child to identify their own feelings as well as others and seek support when they need it. This can help reduce the length and strength of tantrums as your child gains emotional competence.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Children are learning how to engage in healthy relationships through your loving interactions, which include learning how to listen effectively. Skill building takes intentional practice. Learning about developmental milestones can help you to better understand what your child is working hard to learn. Here are some examples:1
- 12-18-month-olds will respond to their name and may use 5 to 10 words. They are starting to combine words with gestures and starting to follow simple directions and remember recent events and actions. They may feel uneasy when separated from their loved ones,
- 18-24-month-olds can understand 10 times more than they can speak, are starting to respond to questions, can point to familiar objects and people in pictures, and are starting to follow two-step directions. They are also starting to want to try things on their own.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- Model listening while interacting with your child. Modeling listening skills can be one of the greatest teaching tools.
- Share the focus. As you spend time with your child, follow their lead. As they pick up new toys or explore a different part of the room, move, notice, and name what they are exploring.2
- Notice gestures and listen for thought and feeling. Attempt to figure out what your child is trying to tell you through their sounds, gestures, and facial expressions. When they are expressing a feeling on their face or through their body, name it. “I noticed your face is red and your shoulders are tense. You look angry.”
- Children require your attention to thrive. So, why not build a special time into your routine when you are fully present to listen to what your child has to tell you? Turn off your phone. Set a timer if needed. Then, notice your body language. Ask yourself, “What is my body communicating, and how am I demonstrating that I’m listening?”
- Talk to your child. Research confirms that talking to a child enhances their language development.3
- Talk clearly and slowly. Exaggerate your words for clarity and understanding. Don’t use “baby talk,” which can be difficult to understand.
- Label what you see. “I see a duck. What does a duck say?”
- Narrate your feelings. As you are going through your bedtime routine, talk about what you are doing each step of the way. Involve your child by asking questions. For example, you might say, “I just yawned and am feeling sleepy. Do you think I should take a nap?”
- Narrate your daily routines. As you prepare breakfast at home or go shopping together at the store, talk about what you are doing each step of the way. Involve your child by asking questions. For example, “I am getting out your favorite cereal bowl. I think we’ll have some cereal this morning. Does that sound yummy to you?”
Step 3. Practice to Grow Listening Skills for Healthy Relationships
Your daily conversations can be opportunities for your child to practice new vital skills if you seize those chances. Each time your child works hard to practice essential listening skills, they grow vital new brain connections that strengthen and eventually form habits.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy — a child’s sense that they can do a task or skill successfully. This leads to confidence. It will also help them understand that mistakes are part of learning.
- Initially, your child may need active support to encourage listening skills. Engage in listening activities together like listening to a simple audio book or a song and then reflect on what you heard together. “I heard clapping.”
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like, “I noticed how you listened to my direction to stay away from the stairs. That will keep you safe.”
- Making animal sounds can be a fun, engaging game for you and your child as they attempt to match what they hear with their own growing ability to make sounds.
- There are a number of games and songs that require strong listening skills. Offer practice by playing these games with your child. For example, making music requires listening particularly if you introduce it as a game. “Let’s dance or play along with our instruments.” Playing along helps a child attune their beats and tones with the sounds they are hearing. Household pots, pans, and spoons can serve as ideal instruments with which to experiment.
- Read or chant rhymes or poetry to your child — particularly ones with repetitive words and sounds.
- Read together. When you read stories together, you engage in a listening activity that can be deeply connecting for both of you. Reflect on the story, and you’ll take the learning opportunity one step further. “Do you think Little Red Riding Hood was excited to go to Grandma’s house?” Involve your child in selecting the book, holding it, and turning the pages to build ownership and interest in reading.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you are developing your child’s skills in listening, and you are allowing them to practice. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, and coaching. Parents and those in a parenting role naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
By providing support, you are reinforcing their ability to be successful and helping them grow in their listening skills.
- Learn about your child’s development. Each new age presents different challenges. Being informed about your child’s developmental milestones offers you empathy and patience.
- Stay engaged. Trying new listening strategies can offer additional support and motivation for your child especially when communication becomes challenging.
When your child does not listen to you or is clearly focusing elsewhere, you might be tempted to scold or nag but be sure and give them additional chances. We all lose our focus sometimes. Get down on their level, eye to eye, and review what you said again to help them refocus their attention. End with a smile or hug to reinforce your connection.
Step 5. Recognize and Celebrate
There are so many amazing changes and developments to celebrate with your child. Each little achievement is something worth recognizing and celebrating.
Taking the time to recognize and celebrate can promote safe, secure, and nurturing relationships. It makes children feel secure and loved, which helps their brains develop. It builds a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
Though it is easy to overlook, your attention is your child’s sweetest reward. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting more positive behaviors and expanding your child’s sense of competence. You can recognize and celebrate your child with the following actions.
- Smile at your child.
- Make eye contact.
- Use caring facial expressions.
- Be physically gentle and caring with your child.
- Use words to celebrate and encourage. Recognize and call out when all is going well. When your child is listening and following your instructions, call it out: “I notice you listened when I asked you to back away from the stove. I know you’re curious, and I am glad you are keeping safe.”
- Build celebrations into your everyday routines. Promote joy and happiness by laughing, singing, dancing, hugging, and snuggling to appreciate one another.
This year is filled with amazing changes — and not just for your child. Don’t forget to recognize and celebrate your own development and milestones as a parent.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, and to work on their relationship skills.