Listening to Tears is all about listening to our children’s feelings without trying to distract them or fix them. Without ‘shhhing’ them or redirecting them with a shiny toy, or other persuasive tactics. Listening with warmth and empathy until they are ready to stop crying, and have gone all the way through, sadness, frustration and fear, till they are happy again.
It sounds so simple, but why is it so hard? Why is it so draining listening to our children’s emotional upsets? Why do we feel so embarrassed when our children have meltdowns in public? Why do we sometimes feel like shouting, ignoring or trying to stop our children from crying?
Part of the answer lies in our own childhoods. Our parents did their very best, with the emotional energy and knowledge about parenting they had available, but they weren’t able to fully listen to our feelings. We may have heard phrases such as ”there’s no use crying over spilt milk,” or ”don’t cry or I’ll give you something to cry about.” We may have been hurt, ignored, or sent to our rooms, in the hope not to encourage our upsets. Even if our parents often used warmth and empathy when we cried, they probably didn’t fully understand about the healing function of crying, and may have thought it kinder to get us to stop crying as quickly as possible by gentle distraction methods, such as a biscuit or some warm milk, not realising that this would just stuff our feelings down, rather than make us genuinely happy.
As we grew into adults, we carried with us all these heavy feelings from the times that we weren’t fully listened to. A lot of the time we might not notice these feelings are there, and when they rise to the surface we have coping mechanisms to deal with them, maybe we keep busy, eat some ice cream, call a friend or go for a drink.
When we have children it isn’t so easy to keep our feelings at bay. When they exhibit strong emotions, and cry or tantrum, it triggers our, often unconscious memories of how we were treated as a child. If you’re reading this blog, I’m thinking that you try to parent in a kind and compassionate way, and that like all parents your own feelings get in the way sometimes. It’s hard to listen to our children’s emotional upsets when our own upsets weren’t fully listened to. It’s hard to give our tantrumming child a hug when in our minds we have echoes of the past when we were told to go to our room.
We need to make some space to receive some of the kind, compassionate nurturing that we want to give our children. If you’re familiar with the Parenting by Connection approach from Hand in Hand parenting, then you’ll know all about Listening Partnerships, a way we can shed some of the old feelings we carry around from our own childhoods.
In a listening partnership we exchange time with another parent, talking and listening about how parenting is going. When we are the listener we refrain from giving advice or telling our own stories. When we talk, we can say freely whatever’s on our mind, knowing that we won’t be interrupted, and that everything will be kept confidential, and not referred to outside the session. If you find listening to crying challenging it can be really helpful to vent the frustration and irritation you feel to a listener. It can also be useful to trace some of our irritation back to our own childhoods. What would have happened if we had a tantrum in the supermarket or over something small and petty? When we get listened to we finally get a chance to fully release the feelings that weren’t heard when we were a child. Then we have the patience to listen deeply to our children too.
Try this: Choose a friend or acquaintance who you trust that you could talk to about how your life is going without censoring yourself. Arrange to have 15-20 minutes in person or on the phone, away from distractions and responsibilities. Divide the time, and ask each other these questions, ‘how do you feel when your child starts crying or tantrumming?’ and, ‘how did the caregivers around you react to your crying when you were a child?’ Talk about whatever memories spring to mind when you ask yourself this second question. You might laugh or cry, and find some renewed energy to listen to your child’s emotional upsets.
To learn more about the listening process, Hand in Hand publishes a booklet, Listening Partnerships for Parents It’s available in their store here. On their website you can also find information about their courses, and how to connect with other parents practising Parenting by Connection, to start listening partnerships. And read here my guest post from Patty Wipfler, the Hand in Hand founder about just how life changing listening can be for us!