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Parents, Listen Up!

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  Jeannine Callea Stamatakis, M.A. (May 2009), M.F.T.I.

            As a clinical psychotherapist, I have spoken with hundreds of parents and their children.  It always strikes me that while the majority of parents truly love their children, they do not quite know how to relate to their children, actively listen, and build a strong connection. 

            As all parents know, children do not come with an instruction booklet; rather, each child is unique in his/her own way.

            The following are some ideas that I have generated throughout my clinical experience; while there are many more, these first ten (10) can be easily implemented by any family:


(1)    When your child talks, really listen.  This is NOT listening with one ear to the telephone and your eyes staring at your computer, this is making direct eye-contact, asking questions, and finding out what is going on.  Countless times when I speak with parents regarding their child at the end of Counseling, I speak about their child’s interests and talents, and many times I am met with a look of amazement and surprise, “Really?”  Additionally, in my practice, when speaking with children and commenting on something that was said during another session, I commonly hear, “Wow – you remember that?”  So, parents, put on your “listening caps” and hear what your children are telling you – you are the most important person in their life and they want to share it with you! 


(2)    “I have no time in my schedule!”  I commonly hear this remark from children’s parents and caregivers.  In today’s 24/7 world, with back-to-back sports games, meetings, and work deadlines, the idea to “make time” does not necessarily bode that well.  I once had a fellow psychotherapist share with me that her client would place a timer on the table and speak with her children for a half an hour each day.  Real conversations do not begin this way; instead, they begin when there is a joint activity, such as playing catch, painting each other’s nails, relaxing together, or some other activity that involves both the parent and the child.  This then creates a safe container of time and rapport and children can easily share what is going on in their lives, and the important/serious issues will be brought to the table by them.  They will see your love, care, and how connected you are, and whatever is going on, both fun and serious, will be shared. 


(3)    Talk WITH your children, rather than AT them.  While for very young children this may not always work or be quite safe, children respond well to conversations, not lectures.  Children (and some adults!) have an ability to block out words – (they are like walls of Teflon) such as “don’t” – you are one more person saying the “D” word and the brain does not respond well to this.  The brain is geared to hear positive words, such as “You are doing a really great job pushing in your chair, Nate” verses “Why did you not do well on this spelling test?”  By reading those two phrases, I am sure you can feel the difference.  Eliminate “don’t” – there is no positive value. 


(4)    A note regarding infancy:  The majority of neurotransmitters are developing in infancy.  Eye contact is critical at this time.  A child can actually tell who is his/her mother just by her voice and her scent.  I see many parents running errands while constantly on their cellular telephones – this does nothing to help promote and stimulate neurons in the infant’s (and young child’s) brain.  The way people are wired is through social connection and interaction.  Facial expression and tone is critical at this time.


(5)    You are your child’s first teacher.  While educational learning happens in the classroom, a child picks up everything from his/her mother, father, and/or primary caregiver.  Infants and children “model” behavior – all things are learned.  The way you yell at your business associate during a conference call may be why Johnny is yelling at his classmates on the playground; be well-advised that Johnny did not just decide that this is an appropriate way to communicate with others, he picked it up from somewhere.


(6)    While there are myriad of activities you can do with your child, next time you have some spare time (like that would ever happen!), write a story together.  As the parent, you can write one page, then your child writes another, and so on, and then illustrate it together.  This can work with other activities as well, such as drawing, making up a song, etc.  Be creative – this way, you will learn your children’s interests and have some time together that is very sacred.


(7)    One thing parents run into when asking children about their day is receiving the cursory remark of “fine.”  Obviously, this does not prompt much more conversation.  If, however, a parent knows that Erica’s favorite subject is art (the activity above is worth a try), a question can be posed such as, “What did you all learn about in art today?”  Consequently, this is a very direct question and is not a catch-all.  Usually, once a child’s interest is sparked, more conversation follows.  Also, be cognizant of when you are asking such a question.  Are you busily cooking dinner, answering the telephone, and sorting the mail or are you taking a moment to sit and relax with your child.  Everyone responds well when they genuinely feel they are important, feel listened to, and are worth someone else’s time. 


(8)    A note to parents who are separated and/or are going through a divorce:  While divorces are usually contentious and religion, race, and culture can easily come into play, continue to emphasize that your love for your child does not change.  Do not speak badly of the other parent in front of the child – children feel torn and do not feel comfortable loving both parents (they have to choose) and this causes rifts that are difficult to heal.  


(9)    The brain is far more likely to thrive and be proactive toward positive validation verses negative statements.  Negativity is far more memorable and that is why people often remember negative comments on report cards verses the more numerous positive ones.  Wipe out negative language with your children.


(10)A note regarding having more than one child:  While it is very beneficial for families to spend time together, it is imperative that children spend time individually with the parent as well.  If Grant prefers track while Celia prefers volleyball, instead of forcing the child to play the other sport, the parent can be with each child individually.  Consequently, individually, each child can share a special activity with the parent which will not be rivaled by the other child at that time and be a connection that both the child and parent have to one another throughout their lifetimes.

“One hundred years from now, it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove...but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child” (Anonymous)

Jeannine Callea Stamatakis is a (intern) psychotherapist in Danville, CA.  She graduated with her B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley, and will be receiving her Master’s Degree in Counseling-Psychology with an emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy (Concentration: Children) in May 2009.  Her background is Rogerian and, working as an integrative therapist, she incorporates Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT), and Positive Psychology.  Her clientele include adults, couples, and children, specifically working with students who have anxiety, depression, anger, bereavement, and ADD/ADHD.  Her clinical interests consist of neuroscience and animal-assisted therapy.  She can be contacted at