Talk less to connect more

How you listen is as important as what you say

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As mask mandates ease and in-person activities resume, it seems like we are actually starting to emerge from this pandemic. We've all lived through this uncertainty together and have frequently had more questions than answers when it comes to communicating with our children about the world around us.

 As a licensed clinical social worker, I don't think I've spoken with a parent, teacher, or childcare provider over the past two years that hasn't asked the question: How has the pandemic impacted our children? So, as we begin to, hopefully, emerge from this pandemic, how do we best support our children and teens to create a feeling of safety, caring, community, and trust?

Although we may not know the full impact of the pandemic for years to come, we can help guide and nurture our children as we transition into a pandemic-lite version of our lives. As adults, we tend to forget one very simple tool available to us when supporting our children: listening.

Imagine for a moment a 3-year-old child, who has never attended school without masks, has rarely had a playdate at his house, and has never eaten in a restaurant. Or a 17-year-old, who has been isolated from her friends during the phase where peer interaction is most valued, has missed out on school dances, and has had sporting events cancelled.

Children of all ages have experienced great losses during this time, which is why it's so important to listen and grieve those lost experiences with them. As adults, it's not always easy for us to be vulnerable around our children and talk about how we are feeling, but we often expect that from them. Being resilient is something we all want for our children, and we've been given an amazing opportunity to model what resilience looks like. It's okay to talk openly with them about the loss of birthday parties, graduations, and canceled team sports.

First and foremost, ask you children how they are doing, check in with them even if it seems like they're fine. Let them know you are a resource for them when they feel good and when they feel unsure about things. Sometimes having these conversations side-by-side, like in the car or on a walk, makes it easier for your child to open up. Avoid saying things like "I understand" or trying to relate by talking about the obstacles you overcame when growing up. At the end of the day, you really don't understand what your child has gone through; instead try saying "that makes a lot of sense, I'm glad you shared that with me." I challenge you to have a conversation with your child where you ask more than you answer and listen more than you speak. Listen with the intent of fostering connection and safety and listen without judgement or offering advice.

If your child expresses concerns or anxieties about their world, allow them to feel uncomfortable and sit with them in those feelings. Instinctively, parents want to change uncomfortable feelings and might say, "don't be nervous about friends not wearing masks, it will be so nice to see their face!" But this doesn't allow them the opportunity to work through their feelings. Denying the feelings doesn't make them go away--it just tells them those feelings aren't valid and wastes a great opportunity to connect with your child. Instead, reflect back what they've shared and ask if you understood them correctly.

Furthermore, allow them to talk without trying to find a solution. Don't offer unsolicited advice or jump in with how to solve it. Remember, we're trying to instill resilience and to do that, your child needs to work through some things without you saving them. You can ask them, "Do you want to brainstorm some ways to handle this?" or "Is there anything I can do to support you?". But understand that it's okay if they don't want your input. Allow them the space to explore their feelings without you trying to "fix" anything. Most of the time, your presence is enough and sometimes, the less you talk, the more you can connect.

Samantha Savin, LCSW, is a Youth Clinical Social Worker for JCC Chicago.

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