Listening To Our Kids – Real Listening – Teaches Them HOW to Deal With Disappointment and Move On.

Your 5th grade son didn’t make the “A” soccer team this spring, and you’re furious because he’s been a really good player ever since he started playing in kindergarten, and he was on the A team last year! You’re thinking, “There is definitely something wrong with this new coach. Assigning my kid to the B team – the man’s an idiot!”

Very natural parental feelings. Now that you’ve recognized your own fury, how are you going to help your son deal with his disappointment and move on?  Simple: you allow him to feel his disappointment and anger by merely listening while he tells you about not being chosen. Give him support and encouragement (Step 5 of the Parenting Plan) by putting his feelings into words, “You really wanted to be on this team, and now you’re feeling disappointed and angry because you weren’t picked.”

At this moment his feelings are the most powerful aspect of this crisis, so you want your son to know you understand how he feels and that what he feels is okay.  A common response when you identify his feelings is that he may cry – very difficult for many fathers. A paramount fear of almost every dad is turning his son into a sissy. Out of this fear, our culture has taught us to tell our boys to “be tough and take it like a man” This approach – believe it or not – is actually counterproductive to teaching children how to become responsible for dealing with life’s unpleasantness.

Psychologists and educators now know more about the brain than they did in the past, specifically more about how people process their feelings and what types of responses from others are the most helpful. These experts inform us that people work through their feelings more successfully when another person responds with empathy instead of with advice and judgmental comments. When another responds to our feelings with empathy, we feel understood, and that’s really what we all want when we’re upset – someone who understands how we feel. Later, after the initial de-fusion of the feelings, a person is more readily able to think, to process information, and to plan next steps. At this later time, we can then offer information. If we try to give information to our child while he’s buried in feelings, he won’t be able to process our information, and we’ll probably be accosted with an angry outburst, “You don’t know how I feel.”

By verbalizing his feelings, you are telling your son you understand what he’s going through, and he is more likely to realize that you do understand – “This is the number one worst event in the history of his life” (and you too may feel the same way).

As the two of you talk, listen as if your child has two speakers. One of the speakers expresses feelings and the other expresses ideas. One of these speakers will always be stronger at any given moment. Listen to hear which speaker is stronger, and respond to that one; either the feelings or the words. Whenever you hear the feelings speaker as stronger than the ideas speaker, put the feeling into words thereby continuing to de-fuse his feelings until you hear the idea speaker becoming stronger. When the idea speaker is louder, then is the time to respond by checking your understanding of what he’s saying. In other words, you paraphrase what you think he’s saying.

Also, please be savvy to the knowledge that this conversation will probably be continued over several days, weeks, or even the entire season, and each time feelings may surface again. Your job continues in the same manner; alternating your responses between identifying his feelings when the feelings speaker is stronger and putting his ideas into words when that speaker is stronger.

In order to help him take on his own responsibility for deciding what he’ll do next, we parents must avoid the following most common ways of talking with their children: giving advice/solutions, nagging, ordering, threatening, moralizing, using sarcasm, criticizing/judging, giving reassurance, and/or distracting him. If this is the first time you’ve seen this list, you may be shocked.  You may not even believe it. But the fact is, that by avoiding these “Communication Roadblocks,” (Gordon, 1989) we ensure we are guiding and supporting while allowing our child to deal with his disappointment and to experience making his plan for what he’ll do next – all while we’re there guiding and encouraging.

This is not to say parents never give information, offer ideas, ask questions or share their experiences. All of these may be appropriate later when strong negative feelings are not predominating. If you had a similar disappointment when you were a kid, by all means tell your story, but timing is paramount. You definitely don’t want the story to give the statement that he’ll get over it just as you did. Rather, you want to tell your story at such a time that it expresses your empathy and understanding of your child’s situation.

While we’re listening – truly listening, another most important process is taking place at this same time, but we have to be watchful or we’ll miss it. While we’re helping our child defuse his feelings so that he is able to move into addressing and solving his problem, we can be learning about our child.  Through avoiding those roadblocks to communication and feelings, we are able to observe our child, thus learning how he’s processing the situation (step 5 of any lesson plan – see Blog #1).  As we parents learn how our child is processing a particular situation, we’re helped in knowing what to say next. Here’s a possible scenario:


Child:          I have to be on the A team.

(Do you hear the emotion – put it into words.)

Parent:        It’s really hard to accept it when you don’t get

on the team you wanted the most.

Child:         Ya, and they picked that new kid.  I play better

than him.

Parent:       Very maddening, I’d say.

Child:         Ya, and I’m really, really mad at all of them.

Silence (wait time – maybe even a minute or more – you’re making space for him to think.)

Child:          Anyway, I’ve got to play soccer even if it’s

on that dumb B team.

Parent:       You think you may want to play on the B

team? (paraphrase to check your understanding

of what he said.)

Child:         NO, I don’t want to play on the B team. It’s the

only way I can play.

Parent:      You’d rather play on the B team than not play all.

Is that what you mean?

 Child:        I guess so.

Silence (wait time again)

Child:       All my friends made the A team, and now they’ll

think I’m a loser ‘cause I have to play on the B team.

You know this isn’t true, but avoid judging; instead, continue putting his feelings into words or paraphrasing his ideas as appropriate.

Parent:    You’re worried about what your friends will think.

If you’re listening and watching carefully, you’ll be learning a great deal about his growing ability to handle his feelings of frustration and anger. You’ll learn the kinds of responses that help him move through his feelings and those that are counterproductive for this particular child. You’ll be learning when to allow silence for him to think and whether to put his feelings or his ideas into words. Every child handles anger differently, and our job as parents is to guide and support while avoiding all judgmental comments.

During this ongoing conversation, your son may wall up in his room, may come out periodically to say something else or may not mention it again. The important point is for him to know you’re there if he wants you. A couple of days later, if he hasn’t told you, you may ask him what he decided to do. His response may well be an anger tinged, “I’ve got to play on the B team.” That’s okay. Over time, other anger may surface. Your job is to put his feeling or ideas into words, as appropriate, in order to allow him to deal with the disappointment as he plays with team members he sees as less skilled than he is.  And the hardest part of this process is sticking to merely paraphrasing and putting feelings into words.

He’ll work it through because he has you on his team. Isn’t it interesting that you haven’t told him anything? You haven’t judged his behavior and you haven’t blamed him or the coach. You have, however, guided and encouraged him by recognizing his feelings and allowing him to have those feelings. You did this by showing your understanding through paraphrasing his ideas and allowing time for him to think while you took the time and interest to sit nearby and just listen. In addition, and very, very importantly, you’ve modeled a process for dealing with disappointment – a process he will eventually be equipped to follow on his own because you have shown him how to do it.

. Gordon,T.(1989). Teaching Children Self Discipline At Home and At School. New York, NY: Times Books, Random House.

copyright 2008  Judy Holmes


One thought on “Listening To Our Kids – Real Listening – Teaches Them HOW to Deal With Disappointment and Move On.

  1. Pingback: Listening To Our Kids – Real Listening – Teaches Them HOW to Deal With Disappointment and Move On. – Creating Responsible Kids

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s