One of the most loving things we can do for another person is to listen deeply. This older post, Listening to Feelings, explores how to listen to our kids. Today I want to add a bit.
When a child (or teen, adult, even a baby) is upset, they're having an emotional experience that doesn't necessarily make intellectual sense. Most children can't articulate their feelings easily, but we can usually tell they're upset. They may withdraw, avoiding eye contact and conversation. They may get into a rage about big or small issues ('Why can't I have a phone,' or 'I can't do this homework.'). Maybe they suddenly need to be taken care of, insisting on help to do things they normally take care of independently.
The signals that tell us they're upset probably don't directly correlate to their feelings, but they give us clues. A child who is dramatically upset that someone ate the last granola may not be only upset about the granola bar, but it can help us to understand her. Maybe she is feeling uncared for, like nobody cares enough to ask if she would like the granola bar?
When we listen carefully, verbally and nonverbally, to an upset child, they have the space to get to know what they are feeling. They may express themselves irrationally or superficially at first, ranting about nobody loving them when they discover that you ate the last granola bar. This is how they begin to put the emotions into words. Sometimes they show us by their actions, turning away from us or stomping their feet. We can offer gentle observations, 'Looks like you feel really upset,' or 'I think you are mad!'
We may be tempted to interrupt, explain, or try to fix the problem, but these responses aren't real solutions. The child needs time to make sense of the feelings. As you listen, they may begin to articulate layers of the experience that are surprisingly insightful, even explaining the points you would have made if you had interrupted a few minutes earlier. They may process the entire situation with little more from you than your loving presence. Our listening gives a child the chance to integrate their feelings with words and understanding.
Sometimes this ends abruptly as a child solves their own problem ('Okay, I'll just have an orange,') and moves on. Other times they may ask for help or seem to need time. Whatever happens, listening gives our child the sense that they are important, that we have time for them, and, most of all, that we love them.
As a mom (to 2 teenage sons), wife, and person in the world, I have been on a long imperfect journey. I have made many mistakes, but with mindfulness, emotional reflection, and lots of support I have learned enormously from those mistakes.