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. In their future, children must listen to their teacher if they are to follow directions and successfully navigate expectations at school. Not surprisingly, better listening skills are associated with school success.
Two-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 the use of 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. Now that your child is highly mobile, they need to be able to follow your instructions to stay safe in your home and in your neighborhood. 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 language and literacy competence;
- 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 and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
Two-year-olds are highly active, exploring their environment and everything in it. They are adding new words to their vocabulary regularly but do not yet know how to name their big feelings. Frustrations with not being understood may result in them losing control more frequently. Despite your child’s new 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 deepening 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.
Consider how your child reacts when they are upset, angry, or frustrated. How do they show you? Children at this age may cry, yell, hit, bite, grab, kick, hide, or pout. Their upset may last longer than an older child’s because they have not yet learned how to understand their feelings and deal with them in healthy ways. Check out some of the ways in which you can respond to your upset child that promote emotional competence.
- If a child is crying, offer comfort items like a favorite teddy bear or a blanket. Do not attempt to talk anything through when a child is highly upset. Focus on calming down first.
- If a child hits or bites in anger or frustration, stop and say, “Ouch. That hurts my arm, and it hurts my feelings.” Then, be sure and reflect on the anger. “You are angry. What can you do that is safe and doesn’t hurt others when you’re angry? Would squeezing your pillow help?” Practice some simple ideas like hugging a pillow or walking outside together. 2-year-olds are just starting to develop a feelings vocabulary and are not able to describe their body sensations when they are upset or dealing with any big feelings.
- Each time your child is upset or expresses any big feeling, be sure and name the feeling and ask if you are correct. “You seem angry. Is that right?” This builds their feelings vocabulary adding to their self-awareness and ability to manage their feelings.
As you react to your child in ways that soothe, you will find they feel a greater sense of your understanding and responsiveness so that your interactions become more two-way instead of one-way even when they are highly upset.
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
- 2-year-olds are expanding their vocabulary rapidly and will be able to say 200-250 words by age three.
- 2-year-olds will be eager to engage in imaginative play and, at times, cooperative play with other children. Children gain vital practice with all of their developmental milestones through play.
- 2-years-olds are highly active with short attention spans.
- 2-years-olds are developing the ability to run, jump, and climb and are eager to engage in gross motor skills (large movements).
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. This is also an opportunity to establish meaningful, logical consequences for when expectations are not met.
- 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. Improve your nonverbal skill interpretation and 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 and ask them if it’s true. “I noticed your face is red and your shoulders are tense. You look worried. Are you feeling worried?”
- Help your child develop an understanding of other people’s feelings by asking them how they think other people feel in certain circumstances. You could say, “I just bumped my elbow. How do you think I feel right now?” Or when reading a story or in pretend play, you could ask, “How do you think the little bear feels right now?”
- 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. Give it a special name you and your child create like “Mom and Susie’s Special Time.” Then, notice your body language. Ask yourself: “What is my body communicating, and how am I demonstrating that I’m listening?”
- Create a safe base. In a time when your child is not upset, talk about what makes your child feel better and offers comfort. Create a “safe base” with your child — a place in the house where your child can choose to go when they want comfort. Place a pillow, blanket, and stuffed animal there. Play act using it. “I am getting red in the face. I’m hot. I feel angry. I’m going to my safe base to calm down.”
- 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.”
Never command your child to go to their safe base when they are upset. Instead, gently remind, “Would your safe base help you feel better?” Offer it as a free choice. If you tell them to go there, it takes away their ownership and your child does not have the opportunity to practice and internalize the self-management skill the experience has the opportunity to build.
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 new vital 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 and failures 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 reflecting on what you heard together. “I heard a drum.”
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like, “I noticed how you listened to my direction to stay on the driveway. That keeps you safe.”
- There are a number of games and songs that require strong listening skills. Offer practice by playing these games with your child.
- Hide and Seek is a favorite child game as they try and figure where you’ve hid or they hide from you. This also exercises turn-taking skills, which are essential to communication.
- Music 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 together. When you read stories together, you engage in a listening activity that can be deeply connecting for both of you. Be sure and involve your child in selecting the book they want to read. Involve your child in holding the book, turning pages, and predicting what will come next. Hold onto a page before turning it and ask, “What do you think will happen next?” 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?”
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you have been 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, coaching, and, when appropriate, applying logical consequences. 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. Working together on ideas for trying out new and different listening strategies can offer additional support and motivation for your child especially when communication becomes challenging.
- Engage in further practice. Play listening games to reinforce skills such as “Let’s see if you can name all of the sounds we hear when we go outside!” Create more opportunities to practice when all is calm.
- Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequences should follow soon after the behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a consequence is about supporting the learning process. First, get your own feelings in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your feelings are in check you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior. Second, invite your child into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2 for listening. Third, if you feel that your child is not holding up their end of the bargain (unless it is a matter of them not knowing how), then apply a logical consequence as a teachable moment.
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 Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child is working hard to practice their listening skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and expanding your child’s self-esteem and confidence. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you would like to see more. For example,“You listened to my directions to keep you safe!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you get your coat and boots, I will give you a sticker” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “I see you got your coat and boots when I asked. Love seeing that!”
- Recognize and call out when all is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. 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 street. I know you’re curious. We’ll hold hands, look both ways, and go together. I am glad you are keeping safe.”
- Recognize and praise small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments – like no interruptions – in order to recognize effort. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them. “You looked up at me when I called your name. I like seeing that!” “That was very kind of you when you gave me a hug when I bumped my toe on the step.”
- Build celebrations into your everyday routines. Promote joy and happiness by laughing, singing, dancing, hugging, and snuggling to appreciate one another.
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.