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Listen, advise or help?

Updated: Nov 25, 2021

Sometimes as parents we may feel programmed to help or to fix our children's problems, but being a listening and supportive ear may just be all your child really needs.

How do you know when the right time to listen, help or advise is? Sometimes the best thing we can do is simply ask. Children are usually really good at knowing exactly what they need. So next time your child is struggling, upset, venting or expressing any other BIG emotions, try ask them upfront.

Do you want me to listen, give advice, or help?

The back story

Sometimes as a parent, the best way we can help is to just be and listen – something I often find the most challenging as the ‘doer’ in me wants to take charge and fix – I may have the tendency to be a little Bob the Builder with my kids’ problems…

As my usually sociable and chatty 8-year-old sat on his bed looking all forlorn after school one day, I sat next to him, wrapped him in a Mummy arm and asked if he was alright. He burst into tears and they kept coming. It took all the willpower in me to just hold him and be there with him / for him while he let it all out, without the interrogation. I was taming the inner mummy dragon that had a million questions… What happened? Who hurt my little boy? Why are you sad? Essentially, tell mummy so I can fix it… The reality is, we can’t always fix it, and even if we can, it’s not always the right thing to do.

After a few minutes, he said, “I have nobody to play with at break”. Fortunately, this stumped me, as he is very sociable and generally gets on with children of all ages, and is equally happy to entertain himself with his wild imagination. As I was processing, I remembered that fixing is not necessarily in his best interests. So I asked him, “Do you want me to be here with you and listen, to give you advice, or to try and help you in another way”, through the tears and cuddles, he whispered, “Just listen”. What proceeded from there was loads more tears spaced out between a few sobby sentences and my understanding that he was upset because most (or ALL as he described it) of his friends were trading Pokemon cards and he had nobody to play with. Problem identified, check… I had a million solutions… he could use his pocket money to buy Pokemon cards too so that he could join in, he could find someone else who wasn’t trading cards to play with, he could make up a game on his own, he could talk to the teacher on duty next time he was feeling sad on the playground, and I had a hundred hundred more… but I took a breathe and held him, rubbed his back and listened as he got it all out. Eventually, he said to me, “Can I have some time on my own and then I will come downstairs”. It was hard, but I remembered that he specifically asked me just to listen, so I got up, kissed him on the head, told him that I loved him and walked downstairs. It was so so hard not to fix. Not to make promises that it was all going to be alright. That is was just a phase, and they would soon move on to something he was interested in. That he was probably tired as it was the first week back at school, and it probably isn’t as bad as he feels it is right now… but I didn’t. I breathed and started making dinner.

He came down a while later and had perked up, but did seem a little off sorts for the rest of the evening but didn’t bring it up again. We had extra cuddles and reading at bedtime and the next day he set off for school. I waited eagerly at the bus that afternoon. He got off, I asked him how his day was. He was less emotional but said, “the same as yesterday, I had nobody to play with”. We walked hand in hand for a short while in silence, but then he led the discussion towards our ‘normal’ walking home topics - did you bring me a snack, what's for dinner, and when can I have a playdate with x. The evening continued as usual, but I was still bothered at the idea of my usually sociable boy sitting alone at break time and not fixing the problem.

The following day, I picked up a very cheery boy from the bus – smile from ear to ear and a hand with 4 Pokemon cards and a football card. He ran up to me excitedly and said, “Mum look! One of my friends gave me a Pokemon card and I traded it, and kept trading and now I have these 4 cards and x gave me a football card too, because he doesn’t have Pokemon cards”. “Wow”, I said, “It sounds like you had a much better day today”! He said, “I am good at solving problems.” Then he added, “Well it’s easy when you have really kind friends”.

I’ve reflected back on this whole situation and think, thank goodness I didn’t try to fix it. His confidence had a super boost that he could fix the problem himself (and likely also because he felt I had faith in his abilities to problem solve). He learned that while he had big and difficult feelings, that he could get through them, his friends had the opportunity to demonstrate kindness and compassion, and he had the amazing experience of being on the receiving end of that kindness and compassion.

And while there are times that simply listening to our children may not be enough – I think as parents, we may often jump to that problem-solving tool belt a little too quickly, looking for a quick fix. Perhaps we need more faith in the child. Faith that they may seek out their own learning circumstances, perfect to their level of ability and needs. A sort of way to practice problem-solving and dealing with difficult emotions, so that as they grow and mature, and when in life the lack of Pokemon cards is actually a rejection for a dream job or the loss of a loved one, they know they can get through it, because they have been practicing all their lives.

So hold tight in those tough moments, be there, love and listen!

"When we give children advice or instant solutions, we deprive them of the experience that comes from wrestling with their own problems."

- Adele Faber

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