Communication is a skill that can take young children some time to develop. Older children who can speak quite well, sometimes express their feelings and opinions quite bluntly, which can trigger parents’ reactions and shut down communication. The following tips will help you adjust the skills we just learned when listening to younger children or teens.


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Young  Children

  • As children mature, their ability to express emotions appropriately can be inconsistent. One day children may manage a situation or emotion well and the next day fall apart over the same incident. This is normal. If adults have difficulty at times handling their emotions, just imagine what young children, with their limited experience and vocabulary, face when coping with their feelings. Remember that “three steps forward, one step back” is still progress.
  • Young children don’t usually verbalize feelings well, they act them out instead. Learn to watch their body language. Their facial expressions and body language will offer clues to what they are feeling and trying to say.
  • Respect the importance of security objects. One way young children cope with emotions is to depend on objects. Sucking a thumb or hugging a blanket is not a sign of weakness. It is usually a temporary means of managing their emotions. Respect children’s needs as you teach them to use feeling words. Be there to offer hugs and an empathetic ear, so they learn how to get human reassurance instead of always looking to objects for security. As children improve their emotional vocabulary, they will use words more often to express their feelings.

A Graduate’s Story. I took Adam, my three-year-old son to the dentist, who told me he was developing an over-bite. The dentist suggested Adam give up his pacifier (which he calls a “sucky.”) I asked the dentist to tell my son, so he would hear it from someone other than me. He told Adam, “You might want to start thinking about not taking it anymore because . . .” and explained why. On the way home, Adam held the pacifier, saying, “I really like my sucky.” I said, “Yeah, it’s really nice to have that sucky. What did the dentist say would happen if you sucked it?” I was careful to let Adam own the problem. My past efforts at weaning him told me I could easily get into a power struggle if I tried to take over the decision. I just kept acknowledging his feelings and the difficulty, “It must be hard not to use something you really like to use.” Adam never used his pacifier again. For several days, though, he still held the pacifier for security. I know that if I hadn’t learned how to reflect feelings and keep the ball in my child’s court, I would have started lecturing him and forcing him to give up his pacifier. While I might have made Adam give up a bad habit, it would have been in an unhealthy way. Instead, Adam weaned himself, which showed him the inner strength he possessed.

  • Use listening skills with even the youngest infants. Infants are born with the ability to communicate; at first, they use crying and nonverbal cues. The understand our words before they can speak clearly. The especially understand the meanings of our tone of voice and facial expressions. Responding to infants’ nonverbal language and acknowledging their feelings builds trust, promotes bonding, and increases intellectual, emotional, and language development. If we practice listening to infants, we feel more comfortable with the skills when they begin to use words.
  • Listening skills also increase young children’s vocabulary. While our children are learning words like “ball” and “cup,” they can also learn words for their feelings. When we play with young children, we can give their dolls, stuffed animals, or puppets feelings that children or others might have. As they develop their feeling-word vocabulary, they are more able to talk about their own feelings.
  • Don’t expect young children to understand another person’s perspective. Statements such as, “How would you like it if someone took your toy?” are probably meaningless. Young children are “egocentric,” which means they are the center of their world. They are learning about the world from their  perspective at this age. As they mature, they will naturally become more aware of others’ feelings and needs. (In Chapter 10, “Clear Communication Toolset,” there are specific tools for helping others understand your feelings or viewpoint.)


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  • It is important for teens to separate from their parents and have individual opinions. Such independent thinking is a strength that will help them as adults. If we try to make teens do what we  think is best, we end up preaching and they become argumentative. Instead, we need to talk with our teens, not at them. We need to let our teens know we are on their side. We can support their individuality (thoughts, feelings, beliefs) and listen with respect to their ideas. If they seem to go astray, we can use the other F-A-X Listening steps (B2: Ask helpful questions and B3: X-amine possible options) to guide them to their own revelations and solutions.
  • Ask teens if they want to discuss their experiences with you, but don’t be offended if they don’t. Teens usually handle crises within their peer group, so it is important for teens to have assertive, respectful communication and conflict-negotiation skills they can use. If we stay on the fringes of their activities, we are not invading their privacy but are available for discussions that build trust and open communication.
  • Teens can think logically and abstractly. They seem to understand human behavior better than many adults. They are usually also searching for spiritual truths during these years. Discuss logical, psychological, and spiritual topics in impersonal ways, as a general conversation to understand each other’s opinions better. These are opportunities to contribute “pearls of wisdom” and learn more about your teen’s values and perceptions. These conversations build trust and give you insight to their inner world.
  • Teens do not want instant understanding and pat answers to their problems. When they experience a conflict, they feel unique, as though they are the only ones who have experienced this exact problem before. While many teens experience common problems, each person lives in an individual world and their experience, to some extent, is unique to them. Comments such as, “I know just how you feel” or “I went through the same thing when I was your age” can sometimes be reassuring, but more often they frustrate teens. It makes their problems and their feelings seem so simple, when the problems feel so complex and mysterious to them.
  • When teens are upset, don’t belittle their distress. Acknowledge how important and confusing it is to them. Help them view their mistakes and problems as opportunities to learn skills and develop strength of character. Let them know that there is no problem too big to handle. Tell them that no matter what, you will be there for them and support them.



Trouble-Shooting  Guide  for  Listening  to  Feelings 

If your attempts to listen seem less than successful, ask yourself these questions:
  • Did I use a feeling word in my response?
  • Did I tell the child how to feel or did I guess how the child might be feeling?
  • Did I simply repeat the child’s words or did I summarize in my own words?
  • Did I reveal anything that might be closer to the real issue than what the child presented?
  • Did I offer a quick solution, brush off the feelings, or use any other communication barriers? 


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Dealing with feelings is an art, not a science. It is a process, not a procedure. Knowing the exact words to say is not as important as conveying warmth and empathy. It is normal to feel uncomfortable with this new way of speaking and listening. After a while, we sense what is helpful to an individual (child, partner, co-worker, etc.) and what isn’t. We discover what frustrates them and what calms them. Soon, we find ourselves using the tools without thinking.

When we accidentally shut the door on someone’s feelings, we can always go back to repair the damage. Just say, “I’ve been thinking about what you said about . . .” Don’t give up on the tools if they don’t seem to work right away. Give yourself and others time to adjust to these new ways of communicating. Focus on the quality of your long-term relationship, not the immediate response to a single situation. You are making a life-long investment in your relationship when you take the time to listen.


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Parent problems: Listen before you talk. Double-check the message.
Child problems:
Avoid taking over their problem.
Start where others are—don’t push your views or solutions.
Problem-solving styles
  • Internal problem-solvers need space and time.
  • External problem-solvers need to bounce ideas off others.
  • Conquerors rush through feelings and focus on facts and solutions.
  • Venters need to express feelings before thinking rationally about solutions.
Avoid communication barriers
Unhelpful Attitudes: Unhelpful Responses:
  • Distraction
  • Impatience
  • Judging feelings
  • Imposing our world on theirs
  • Advising or giving solutions
  • Analyzing
  • Blaming and judging
  • Denying feelings
  • Diverting and distracting
  • Quick fixes
  • Journalistic questioning
  • Labeling or name-calling
  • Telling stories or lecturing
  • Logical debates
  • Minimizing
  • Moralizing and preaching
  • Warning and threatening
Focus on feelings ☆☆☆☆
a. Identify the feeling
Stop, Look, and Listen.
Avoid reacting to surface emotions and behaviors.
Look for clues to feelings underneath (including nonverbal signals).
Choose a feeling word.
b. Identify the thought or the event causing the feeling.
c . Summarize in your own words what you think they mean. ☆☆☆☆
Give wishes in fantasy. 
Keep reflecting until people move on, express confusion, or are ready to discuss possible solutions. 

Permission for reader to reprint this page for personal use only granted by author, Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, The Parent’s Toolshop, © 2000.


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Read each child’s statement. Acknowledge the child’s feelings by following the three steps we learned for planning a helpful response:

Step B1: Focus on feelings

a.  Identify the feeling.
b.  Identify the event, thought, or belief causing the feeling.
3.  Respond by summarizing, in your own words, what you think the child means, to show you were listening and understand.

(Plan your response before reading the answer key, which offers one possible response and extra pointers to keep the lines of communication open.)

  1.   “Emily is spending the summer at her grandmothers! She’s my best friend!”
(What  is  this  child  feeling?  Why?  Check  this  out  with  your  response.)
  2.   “I’m scared to go to bed. There’s a monster under my bed that comes out in the dark!”
(What  is  this  child  feeling?  Why?  Check  this  out  with  your  response.)
  3.   “I don’t feel like cleaning the toilets! I’ll do it after I play.”
(What  is  this  child  feeling?  Why?  Check  this  out  with  your  response.)
  4.   “I played soccer at recess. Brandon and Chris were the captains and I was the last one to get picked.” (What is this child feeling? Why? Check this out with your response.)
  5.   “I can’t believe I missed that catch. We lost the game because of me.”
(What  is  this  child  feeling?  Why?  Check  this  out  with  your  response.)
  6.   “Why do I have to get my picture taken? I hate to smile with these braces on.”
(What  is  this  child  feeling?  Why?  Check  this  out  with  your  response.)
  7.   Your preteen daughter says, “I’m not sure if I’m going to Tom’s party. John will be there.”
(What  is  this  child  feeling?  Why?  Check  this  out  with  your  response.)
  8.   “Finals are next week and I’ve got to work every single night!”
(What  is  this  child  feeling?  Why?  Check  this  out  with  your  response.)


Possible  Answers

While you probably identified similar feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and events, the following answers might vary from your answers. There is no one right response. If your answer differs, look at the trouble-shooting guide.

Imagine how the conversation would go after our first response. At the end of the next chapter, we continue the conversation using the next two steps of F-A-X Listening, Ask helpful questions and X-amine possible options.

  1.  “Emily is spending the summer at her grandmothers! She’s my best friend!”
Child’s feelings, thoughts, beliefs: sad, because the friend will be gone a long time and the child will miss  her.
Listening response: “You’re really going to miss her, aren’t you? (pause) All summer sounds like long timedoesn’t it?”Avoid glossing over the problem with a quick fix, “She’ll be back at the end of the summer. You’ll see, time will fly.” If the child nods her head after our first response, we can ask helpful questions. (We’ll continue this conversation in the next chapter.) 


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“I don’t want to go to bed. There’s a monster under my bed that comes out in the dark!”
Child’s feelings, thoughts, beliefs: scared, because she believes there are monsters or that things are different  in the dark. 
Listening response: “It must be scary to think there is a monster there.”
Notice how this possible response acknowledges the child’s fear and the possibility that things look different in the dark, but does not feed the inaccurate belief in monsters? Once we’ve acknowledged the child’s feelings, we can ask helpful questions. (We’ll discuss fears more in the next chapter and continue this conversation in the answer key there.)
“I don’t feel like cleaning the toilets! I’ll do it after I play.”
Child’s  feelings,  thoughts,  beliefs:  torn between work and play.
Listening response: “I know it’s hard  to  work when you’d rather  be  playing.”
This is a trick question, because this was really a Parent problem—until the child refused. Then it became a C/P problem. We need to back up and acknowledge their feelings before setting limits. Often, if we notice their feelings, they move on and do as we request. If not, we can use the Cooperation Toolset, “When you’re done with the toilet, you can go out and play.” If children persist, we can use helpful questions or problem solving to resolve the problem without a power struggle. (See the next chapter for specific ideas.) 
“I played soccer at recess. Brandon and Chris were the captains and I was the last one to get picked.”
Child’s feelings, thoughts, beliefs: left out or rejected, disappointed, or discouraged, because he was the last child chosen for the team.
Listening response: “It hurts to be rejected.” Or “It’s discouraging to be the last one picked.”

Children might assume that Brandon and Chris didn’t pick them because they don’t like them or aren’t their friends anymore. If we bluntly point out false beliefs, we sound like we are criticizing or disagreeing that there is a reason to feel bad. If we listen effectively, children might share their reaction to being chosen last. Perhaps they decided to sit out the rest of recess. We can use helpful questions and problem solving to help children see that this is not their only option and plan a better response if it happens again. (See the next chapter for ideas.)

“I can’t believe I missed that catch. We lost the game because of me.”
Child’s feelings, thoughts, beliefs: disappointed, sad, and blames self for missing the catch. Listening response: “I can tell you’re really disappointed you missed that catch. It’s hard to make a mistake at such an important time.”

When children are being hard on themselves, we often try to cheer them up with logical explanations, such as “You might have lost the game anyway,” or “Lots of people miss catches.” While these might be true statements, children think we don’t understand how rotten they feel. Beyond the actual loss, children probably think they let down the team and that the other teammates are angry with them. Or maybe they are so embarrassed they can’t face their teammates. Avoid smoothing over their concerns with, “I’m sure they still like you.” Their concerns might be valid! Once they are thinking logically, you can start asking helpful questions. (See the next chapter for ways to help the child consider a different point of view.)

“Why do I have to get my picture taken? I hate to smile with these braces on.”
Child’s feelings, thoughts, beliefs: self-conscious or unattractive wearing braces for the photograph.
Listening response: Are you feeling self-conscious about wearing braces in your pictures?”

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Avoid the temptation to say, “But you look nice with braces.” Even if this is true, children will rarely believe it. Start where they are, but don’t agree they look “ugly.” Also avoid smoothing over their feelings, “You’ll see, your teeth will look nice when your braces come off.” Again, this is probably true, but that’s not how they feel now. Even if children’s perceptions are inaccurate, acknowledge how they see things. Once children know we understand, we can use questions to help them consider different viewpoints and options for solving the problem. (See the next chapter to continue this conversation.)

Your preteen daughter says, “I’m not sure if I’m going to Tom’s party. John will be there.” Child’s feelings, thoughts, beliefs: hesitant to see John, so unsure whether to go to Tom’s party. Listening response: “You sound like you aren’t sure you want to see John. Any particular reason?”
Don’t ask, “Why do you want to avoid John?” We would be assuming she wants to avoid him or that he’s been mean. She could have a crush on him! If we jump to conclusions and we are wrong, she will conclude we aren’t listening or get defensive. If we listen effectively, she will probably reveal the real reason she doesn’t want to see John (he’s mean to her, she has a crush on him, or another reason). Then we can ask helpful questions to help her explore options. (See the next chapter to continue this conversation.)
  8.   “Finals are next week and I’ve got to work every single night!”
Child’s feelings, thoughts, beliefs: pressured or overwhelmed, because finals and work schedule conflict.
Listening response: “Wow, you’re under a lot of pressure right now. You have extra studying you need to do, but they need you at work, too.”
If you have a teen who has a job and cares about studying—count your blessings and don’t offer any advice! Make sure you give this teen credit for being a responsible worker, who doesn’t want to let the employer down, and a responsible student who thinks about schedules in advance. Then move to the next step by asking a few helpful questions. (See the next chapter to continue this conversation.)


If we practice these listening skills often, in all our relationships, others will start sharing more with us. We will feel more comfortable with the language of effective listening and see how our attitude and skills promote greater understanding in our relationships.

Focus on feelings” is just the first step of F-A-X Listening. In Chapter 8, “Problem-Solving Toolset,” we learn what to do, beyond listening, to guide people through the problem-solving process. We learn the last two steps of F-A-X Listening: “Ask helpful questions” and “X-amine possible solutions.”



  1     Child: Two helpful resources for more information on male/female communication styles are Hidden Keys to a Loving Relationship, by Dr. Gary Smalley (a videotape series, 1993) and Men Are From Mars, Women are From Venus, by Dr. John Gray (HarperCollins, 1992).
  2     Listening for Heaven’s Sake, by Dr. Gary Sweeten, Dave Ping, and Anne Clippard (Teleios Publications, 1993) p. 89.   
  3     Ibid. p. 91.   
  4     S.T.E.P. (Systematic Training for Effective Parenting), by Donald Dinkmeyer and Gary McKay(American Guidance Service, 1982).