Forgive me the clicky headline, but this is important. I’ll confess upfront that two words are probably not all you need to raise well-adjusted kids. You also need bucket loads of patience and a Teflon-like ego. Even well-adjusted kids are a handful.
However, there absolutely exists two words that will make a ton of difference to your relationship with your children. And a ton of difference to the parent-child relationship can make all the difference to how a kid feels about themselves.
If you say these words regularly and with feeling, they could well change your entire relationship dynamic.
It’s pretty simple, as these things so often are. The two words you need to say the most as a parent are:
This simple, everyday phrase says so much.
Firstly, it says, I think what you have to say is important.
Then it says, I am giving you my complete focus.
And it also says, I value your experiences and opinions.
A parent who listens helps kids grow
‘I’m listening’ is the antidote to all the ‘should have’, ‘could have’, ‘would you’s that our relationship with our children deals with on a daily basis. It allows us to step back and let our kids take the wheel for a change.
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It might be a funny story that happened at school that day – listening means your child takes the floor and you’re both rewarded with a shared laugh.
It might be a problem they are facing – listening means they feel confident to relax and open up. Having an actively listening parent means they practise expressing themselves without feeling judged.
It might be a dilemma they are wrestling with – listening helps our children figure out their true POV, without having to meet the expectations of others.
Listening is harder than it sounds
Listening to our children can actually be super-hard for a parent to do. Often our need to ‘fix’ things means we leap to the rescue, rather than step back and listen. Sometimes we don’t like what they have to say, and our discomfort means we shut out our kids’ words.
Listening helps our children figure out their true POV, without having to meet the expectations of others.
Once you become aware of it, you might be surprised to find how often you don’t listen when your kids talk. We are a distracted, busy generation and making space to hear our children out can be hard.
However, if we make it a priority to create space in our days for our children to open up, our relationship, and our children, will flourish.
How to actively listen
Of course, it only works if we actually devote our full attention to our child. It’s important to make space for them to relax enough to open up and tell us what’s on their mind. If it’s not a ‘good time’ for listening, let your child know and set a time (not too far away) that would suit you both better.
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Agree privacy upfront
Depending on the conversation, make sure you both agree what is private and what isn’t upfront. For me, all conversations with my children are private unless they ask me to talk to someone else about it. We’ve agreed that the only time I would ever breach that privacy is if I thought a person (eg. a friend they mention) was at risk or in danger.
Value the pause
If your child hesitates or is taking time to express themselves, don’t immediately jump in. Show them with your body language that you are still attentive, and give them time. Staying quiet and patient shows them that they are free to talk in their own time.
You might think you already know what your child is going to say, but sit back. Don’t anticipate your response, or jump ahead of their story. Instead, focus on what they are actually saying. Note their expression, body language, the cadence of their voice.
Provide non-verbal feedback
Let them know you are attentive by leaning forward, holding eye contact, and nodding slightly. Keep your face open and your body relaxed.
They may not actually want to hear your opinion, so check before you give it.
Encourage their feelings
Once they have finished and they have invited you to talk, express empathy towards their point of view. You might say something like, “I’ve never felt that way myself, but I can understand how this is hard for you.”
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Confirm they want your opinion
By telling you about something, your child may be seeking your advice, or they may simply want you to know about something. They may not actually want to hear your opinion, so check before you give it. This one is really important because often kids just want to ‘check in’ and tell you something, but they’re okay sorting it out for themselves.
Flip it back
Even if they are seeking your advice, it’s a good idea to flip it back to them first. “What do you think should happen next? Why do you think that’s going on?, etc” This is great critical thinking and problem solving practise. You can then offer your POV after they have offered theirs.
Ask open-ended questions
As they begin to tease out their thoughts, encourage them to keep exploring by asking open-ended questions. These are questions that can’t be answered with just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. “What happened next?”, “What did you think of X?” “Would you change Y if you could?”, etc.
Feature image by Eric Nopanen; Talk by by Priscilla Du Preez; Tea by Stephanie Pombo
Do you think your child might be a perfectionist? Do they set high standards and then get cranky when they don’t live up to them? Do they expect a lot from others and then get disappointed when they don’t cut it? Are they procrastinating over something because it’s easier to do that than to face the possibility that they won’t do it perfectly?
Perfectionism is a curse that many of us live with but there is hope. Your child (and you!) can overcome perfectionism – or at least temper it a bit so that life is not quite so overwhelming.
High-standards vs perfectionism
Psychologists worry about perfectionists not because of the high standards they maintain for themselves. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact many ‘perfectionists’ maintain high standards, but don’t necessarily suffer as a result. If your kid does this, then they are probably not a perfectionist. Rather, they possess a high need for achievement.
Perfectionism is a worry to psychologists because true perfectionists hold themselves to high standards and then judge themselves negatively when they don’t meet those standards. It’s the thinking part that causes the problems; how hard you are on yourself. Not the standards. This can be particularly worrying in kids and teens.
Perfectionism, passions and priorities
Kelly Exeter has been through that battle. She had, in her own words, a breakdown some years ago. Kelly went to therapy and learnt a lot about herself and how she functions in the world. She describes her own understanding of perfectionism and her framework for overcoming it in her book, Practical Perfection.
It’s a great book and I wholeheartedly recommend it if you or your child is feeling burnt out or overwhelmed or ‘like a hamster on a wheel’, just trying to keep up with your own expectations. In fact I recommend it to everyone because Kelly talks about the importance of knowing two vital things about yourself:
1. Your passions
2. Your priorities
I talk a lot about strengths and values and the importance of knowing your strengths and your values for wellbeing.
Passions = Strengths
Priorities = Values
Kelly talks about how not knowing your passions and priorities contributes to burnout and overwhelm. So there’s a good place to start a discussion with your child.
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5 tips for overcoming perfectionism
Be sure to see your GP for a referral to a psychologist if you think your child is experiencing excessive anxiety due to perfectionism.
1. Talk about it
Ensure they understand the difference between setting high standards they strive to meet, and perfectionism. Ask your child the questions I posed at the start of this article. They are a good indication that perfectionism may be present. Encourage older kids to research examples of perfectionism to see if they feel it might be a fit for them.
2. Put things into perspective
Perfectionists have a tendency to ‘catastrophise’ mistakes, accidents and imperfections. They focus on the negative outcomes of failure, rather than the positive consequences of getting a job done well enough. Share stories of when things went wrong for you and how they turned out okay in the end. Remind them of times when this happened for them, too. It might also help to gather famous examples and quotes that remind us that mistakes are often necessary to achieve breakthrough.
Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. – Winston Churchill
3. Reframe negative thinking
Sadly, self-criticism often goes hand-in-hand with perfectionism. If your kid has a tendency to put themselves down or be overly self-critical, help them learn to put a positive spin on things. With a bit of luck, if they remind themselves over and over that “the only thing I have to be perfect at is trying”, they just might start to believe it. In any case, a positive mantra will remind them that life is not always black and white.
4. Set small goals
To help overcome the procrastination that often goes with perfectionism, help your child break tasks down into small, achievable goals. They may feel like they can’t start an entire English essay without over-researching, but perhaps they can research one aspect very well and agree to simply touch on other key points. Make sure they keep a calendar with deadlines to keep the momentum going.
5. Know passions and priorities
Touching on Kelly Exeter’s work, make sure your child has a clear understanding of what they are truly passionate about. Are they doing something simply because they know they are good at it, or do they genuinely enjoy it? Once they are clear about their passions, setting priorities will help them decide which activities they should devote their time to, and which they can spend less energy on. This will help them learn the value in doing a “good enough” job and temper their inclination to devote themselves entirely to a project.
Are you or your child a perfectionist? Or a recovering perfectionist?
Feature image by Annie Spratt; 2 by Jonathan Hoxmark
I am a firm believer in the importance of self awareness and self acceptance. Of understanding, knowing and believing in who we are as individuals.
Years ago, I chanced upon the HBO documentary, ‘Suited’. Produced by a team led by Lena Dunham, it introduces Bindle & Keep, a Brooklyn-based microbusiness carefully tailoring handmade suits for gender-nonconforming and transgender clients.
It’s a beautiful documentary “about custom suits, accepting difference and living bravely in one’s own skin.”