We have been talking about what we can do as parents to help our kids develop anxiety and stress management skills. Using the acronym C.A.L.M. as a guide, we will continue to discuss how we as parents can be the non-anxious presence our kids need as they struggle with their own experiences of fear about the future or preoccupation with the past.
C – Catch (the anxiety early)
A – Acknowledge (their experience)
L – Listen (to understand)
M – Maintain (their dignity)
As we discussed previously, “Catching the anxiety early” focuses on my need, as a parent or guardian, to pay attention to my kids and to slow down so I can see them and be aware of what is going on with them. My responsibility is to notice when my own preoccupation is creating distance and distraction in our relationship and to take steps to remedy that situation as quickly as possible.
“Acknowledging their experience” reminds me of the importance of really taking my kids’ experiences seriously. I have to get out of my own head and do the work to see the world from a child’s or adolescent’s perspective. No matter how big or little the problem may seem to me, my kids’ perception of the situation is the foundation of their reality. As a parent, if I want to be of any use to them and help them learn to develop anxiety and stress management skills, I have to take this seriously.
L – Listen (to understand)
Listening to understand can sound deceptively easy. Listening is simple but it’s not easy. Listening is a lot like doing push-ups. Push-ups are extremely simple, you lay on the ground and simply push yourself up. As simple as that sounds, push-ups are one of the more difficult and effective exercises we can do. Push-ups are simple but they are not easy. Similarly, listening, really listening, is simple but it is not easy. When it comes to effectiveness, listening is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children. If “Catching” is about helping our kids feel seen; “Listening” is about helping our kids feel heard. To genuinely feel that we have been heard and understood is one of the most grounding and centering experiences we can have as a person. To have someone else take the time to get down on your level and really try to come alongside you in all your fear, worry, frustration, pain, and disappointment is maybe one of the most healing acts one person can provide for another.
So, how do we listen in this way? We need to adopt the persona of the “humble detective.” There are two main aspects of the humble detective: humility and curiosity. First, in being humble we assume that we had better not assume. To listen, I need to approach the situation with an open mind and be aware of my assumptions and do my best to lay those assumptions down. All I know at this moment is that I don’t know. It is impossible to really listen if I think I already know everything there is to know about the other person. In humility, I listen to learn.
Curiosity reminds me to investigate, not interrogate. A curious investigation must first of all come from a place of genuineness. Genuine curiosity often sounds like:
“Help me understand that better…”
“What do you mean by…”
“What was that like for you…”
“I’m not sure I understand, can you help me?”
Interrogation often sounds like:
“Why did you do that?”
“Why did you go there?”
“Why were they invited?”
“Why are you so worried about this?”
“Why don’t you just call them and get it over with instead of all this texting?”
Interrogation rarely leads to communication.
In listening with humility and curiosity we suspend our desire to give advice, to fix, to rescue, to set straight, to correct, or to make it all better. In listening this way and listening to understand, we simply listen and wait, listen and wait, listen and wait. We wait until we have understood in a way that is unmistakably meaningful for the other person. We wait until we have earned the right, through our listening, to finally speak. How do we know when it is finally time to speak? Sometimes it sounds like:
“Well, what do you think…”
“What would you do…”
However; if we are really listening we might realize that now is not the right time to offer our opinion but simply our support.
“Oh man, this is a tough one…”
“Hey, it makes sense that you’re worried, I think I would feel the same way if it were me.”
As I listen to you, it sure sounds like you got this kiddo…”
“I think you’re going to figure this out and I’m right here if you need me.”
Listening to understand requires that I tolerate my own discomfort with seeing my child in pain. I seek first and most importantly to grasp where my child is coming from, and I allow my child the space they need to solve their own problems.
Speaking of helping our kids solve their own problems, up next:
M – Maintain their dignity