Parenting tends to evoke a lot of emotional challenges, while by the very nature of the role, parents also tend to find that they have less time to self-reflect, to carve out time to relax, de-stress and have fun, less sleep and generally less time to maintain emotional health and balance. As a counsellor and parent educator I can't recommend strongly enough that you do find a way to get more of your emotional needs met, it's not just a nice idea, it's essential if you are to continue to give your child the genuinely patient, empathic and warm support that they need SO much of!
Every parent needs space with another warmly caring and patient adult who is willing to listen without judgment. This article offers encouragement and guidelines around organizing the emotionally safe, confidential and non-judgmental space you need to explore and resolve your thoughts and feelings. I especially recommend that you set this up with your co-parent if you are in contact and they are open to doing this. And I recommend that you find another adult (instead of or as well as a co-parent) where you can develop this kind of mutually supportive relationship. Counselling and psychotherapy can meet some of these needs, yet co-parents generally have a lot that they need to figure out and work through to increase harmony and happiness in the family, yet without learning to listen to each other from the heart, it's unlikely both parties will have the courage to show and share their true thoughts, feelings and needs in a way that's sensitive, non-critical and non-defensive.
It just is incredibly difficult for most parents to remain patient and truly present with their children's emotions and difficulties unless we ourselves have a place where we feel that someone has the patience and presence to be there for us with our emotions and difficulties.Without necessarily being aware that it's happening, all parents experience at least a certain amount of triggering, which means that interactions in the family today touch on stuck feelings and patterns from the past that felt similar in some way. Unless these stuck feelings and patterns become resolved through increased understanding and emotional release, they can prevent growth in the present.
Feeling heard and cared for is energizing and empowering, whereas criticism is discouraging and tends to evoke defensiveness. Counselling and organized active listening with another adult can really help a parent to lift out of feeling stuck and powerless into a very different mind and heart space with renewed energy to tackle their challenges with more patience and creativity.
But I already talk with my friends about my problems. Counselling and organized active listening with another adult differs from chatting with friends in that it gives you the chance to really drop into exploring where the related feelings are held in your body, and help you to experience relief and release as you share your vulnerable feelings. You'll experience a lot more patience and space for you to deepen into your thoughts and feelings when the space is dedicated to you feeling heard. This process often brings gems of clarity and insight into the origins or the core beliefs of our most painful patterns.
Organizing the time and space to talk and be heard tends to result in more constructive communication for both parties. Often in talking about one’s problems with friends, a person doesn’t necessarily gain a sense of relief, release or resolution because many of the responses that friends and family offer are often at a more intellectual level and may lack true emotional connection. Friends or family tend to try and reassure with platitudes like "you're doing great" or "don't let him get to you, it's his stuff". This can feel good, yet it may just as easily feel minimizing or dismissive and doesn't create enough permission and space to really explore one's thoughts and feelings. When people feel that which is raw and vulnerable for them, they need and deserve to feel truly met, heard, understood and empathized with. Yet this is a lot to hold for another person, so it's best if permission and the right time and space can be agreed.
Those who dismiss their own feelings, will likely dismiss yours. Most people respond to another’s upset in a similar way that their own upsets were responded to as a child, which often can feel a bit competitive, or can leave you feeling minimized, invalidated; moralized or patronized. The other person may give you advice that is heard more like their take on what you "should" do rather than helping you feel understood, or sometimes a friend, with the best intentions, will highlight where the other person may be coming from leaving you feeling like they care more about the feelings of the person you're upset with than your feelings. Most people really want to be helpful, yet sadly, most people didn’t learn to trust that their own vulnerable feelings would be responded to with the sensitivity they deserved, and also sadly didn’t develop an effective feelings vocabulary, and didn’t learn what more compassionate communicate can look and sound like.
When we move from intellectualizing to feeling, that's when we gain the most important insights that lead to solutions and resolution. It’s the elements of feeling truly heard, understood and empathized with that allows a person to move from talking about their problems to talking from and showing the underlying feelings which their problems are bringing up for them. Talking from and really showing our feelings can lead to satisfying emotional release and resolution.
Crying can feel so very cleansing and relieving when the space is held by a calm, patient, and empathic listener. Your friend or partner's acceptance of your feelings helps you listen to yourself to glean the deeper insights and resolve feelings that previously felt so unmovable like the big rage and grief or shame that can otherwise compromise your clarity and confidence daily. I've seen thousands of clients and group participants over the years inch by inch gain relief, feel empowered and re-energized to tackle their difficulties, including reducing their symptoms of depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD, addictions (the list goes on!).
Organising Active Listening with another adult
Active Listening: The guidelines to effectively practice active listening with another adult or with a child are very similar. Although it’s aimed at helping parents listen to their child, read through it adapting it in your own mind where relevant to apply to an organized active listening relationship with another adult.
These guidelines can also make an enormous difference in working through differences with a partner, if you can come to the agreement to aim for each person to feel satisfactorily heard and understood before you agree to start problem solving together to find solutions to your problems that you can both agree on (if indeed solutions are even needed).
Organise the partnership
- It doesn’t always work to expect a friend at a coffee group to know you want to be listened to. It may work better to organise the listening partnership and make sure both people are clear with how it works.
- Another parent who has some similar challenges may be a good listening partner.
- Discuss the practicalities. When might be good times for you both. How will you take turns being listened to. Week on, week off or half a session each.
Agree on Guidelines
- Both partners could print some of the information from this page or the table below to refer to.
- Be clear about what you need from your listening partner: Active listening, a good vent, problem solving.
- Agree on giving each other feedback as diplomatically as possible with the purpose of you each gaining more insight into what your listening partner most needs when expressing fragile or strong feelings.
Messages that generally help the speaker feel heard are all sounds and words that give the effect that you’re interested, present and want to hear more like;
“ah yes I get that”, “mmmm”, “sounds really hard”, “tell me more about that”, “and how does that feel?”, “yes I can really imagine how difficult that is”, “sounds really tough”, “how are you feeling now as you talk about it?”, “that’s so big”, “that’s so much to hold / carry / contain”, “what do you most need in the situation?”, "how can I best support you right now?"
When the person being listened to feels they've got it all out, they could indicate this to the listener with a phrase like, ‘Thank you, I’ve got it all out now.’
Once the big feelings have been expressed around a certain topic and you'd like some support problem solving solutions, you could ask. ‘Would you be willing to help me brainstorm some solutions?" or "I'd like to think about some steps towards change that I could make and I'd be happy to hear your ideas as well".
Impatient Listening: We tend to ...
- Cut in and talk over the other, convinced that we have the gist of the problem.
- Do some housework or fiddle with something at the same time. Attention is divided.
- Give messages that we want the problem to be solved or fixed as quickly as possible, and impatiently give advice or ask questions that express our need to move on.
- Evaluate who is in the right and who’s in the wrong and aim to “help” the speaker see how they’re contributing to the problem, and may even show more sympathy for the person your speaker is having difficulty with.
- Give unsolicited advice: “what I think you need to do is … “, “have you tried …. “, “what I would do in your situation is …. “, “why haven’t you ….. “.
- Invalidate their feelings by minimizing their situation or comparing with others; “at least your children still talk to you, all I get from my kids are grunts at best”, or “but it’s important to focus on what is working well”, or “at least you’re lucky enough to be a stay at home mum and don’t have to juggle going out to work as well”.
- Neglect to speak to or acknowledge speaker’s feelings relating to the problem, by not giving any reassurance that we care and understand, or by reflecting only our understanding of the problem rather than the feelings they’ve shown; “I hear your kids never do what they’re told and are really rebellious”.
Active Listening: We tend to ...
- Actually listen to their perspective with the intention of showing them understanding and emotional support.
- Show through your body language, tone of voice and reflections that you’re giving your full attention. Aim to show the other that you are taking their problem seriously.
- Aim to sensitively hear and reflect the underlying feelings and unmet needs that the other is showing, not just the actual problem being expressed; “I hear how frustrating this is, you need more cooperation”.
- Aim to listen and respond without judgement or evaluation, knowing that if the speaker feels evaluated it adds extra stress and pressure to a situation and can increase rather than decrease any feelings of stuckness and resentment.
- Trusting that the speaker feelings truly heard, understood and empathized with gives them permission to show and share more of their raw feelings and that this is the most constructive help we can give.
- Give verbal and non-verbal feedback that we care and are inviting the speaker to get it all off their chest without feeling rushed. “hmm”, “yes I get it”, “I hear how very upsetting it is for you when you ask your kids to help and they fight among themselves about whose turn it is”, nodding our head, caring eyes and facial expressions.
- Aim to acknowledge their feelings knowing that it’s important that they feel heard and understood without competing, comparing or encouraging them to look at the bright side. Truly listening with empathy allows the speaker deeply explore their feelings in a safe space, it allows them to offload frustrations and work through a valuable emotional process that can lead to greater peace, clarity and insights, or at least a little less conflicted.