I Tried Active Listening and Got My Angry Kids to Calm Down

Active listening is a tool commonly used by therapists. It relies on some annoying verbal tics, but it works like a charm.

I implore my two boys to talk to me when they’re having a hard time, but only when I’m in the mood to listen. Otherwise, I’m more likely to dismiss their struggles with curt commands like “figure it out” or “get over it.” I don’t do this out of malice or carelessness. I do this because my days are long and my emotional bandwidth is limited. I don’t want to engage when I can’t help.

I’d like to think that I’m capable of helping more often than I’m not, but recently I’ve been struggling. I’ve been having a hard time listening. Perhaps inevitably, this has engendered a vicious cycle. Desperate for attention, the kids whine more. Aggravated, my wife and I become more dismissive. Recently, we’ve learned how loud an 8-year old can yell and how hard a 5-year-old can slam a bedroom door. Clearly, this wasn’t an acceptable status quo. So I looked into therapy.

Specifically, I looked into how therapists work. I don’t have the time or the health plan to shrink the kids professionally. So, I had to do. My cheap/clever hack? Employ the same active listening techniques my boy would encounter in cognitive behavioral therapy sessions. Given that my struggles to focus on my children’s’ complaints created a sour atmosphere in the first place, I figured it was on me to overcompensate.

But here’s the thing about active listening: It requires actual work. The technique involves reducing distractions and paying attention to body language while the person is talking. Then as the listener, you repeat back what you heard, paraphrasing the information for confirmation. The process also requires being physically open to the speaker and offering your own body language clues that you are listening, including head nods and eye contact when appropriate. At a cocktail party, we call this behavior “being offputting.” In a more intimate setting, it can be genuinely powerful.

I started using the technique on a Monday, and I didn’t have to wait long to observe the effects. My Kindergartner had followed his brother in from the bus, weeping openly. Instead of guessing his needs or telling him to chill I sat him on the steps and asked what was going on.

“I had a bad day and I have homework,” he wailed.

“What I’m hearing is that you are sad and disappointed that you have homework. Is that right?” I asked, feeling slightly ridiculous.

“Yeah,” he whimpered. “And my brother doesn’t have homework.”

“I hear that you’re also disappointed that you have to do homework and your brother doesn’t,” I said over his sobs.

He nodded at me, took a steadying breath and wiped his eyes. “Poppa, can I have a snack?” he asked, calmer.

“What I hear you saying is that a snack might make you feel better,” I replied, really leaning into the whole thing.

My son nodded, I took his hand, and helped him open a banana. He was suddenly fine. It had worked like weird, socially awkward magic.

I began to understand the mechanism of why the technique worked over the rest of the evening and through the next morning. Active Listening was like hitting a pause button. It required me to be quiet and present. While the process of talking and listening was occurring nothing else could really happen. Instead of amplifying the conflict with outside noise, active listening quieted everyone. And in that quiet place, reason could prevail.

But that wasn’t the only reason active listening worked. By the third day, my kids were becoming aware of what I was doing and started getting desperate to escape the inevitable tedium of my patient and attentive listening technique. What impressed me was that it worked precisely because it was unwieldy. Even after my kids started figure it out, it worked.

On Wednesday afternoon my Kindergartner arrived in the kitchen with a problem. He was pissed because he wanted another snack despite already having his afternoon snack. He also wanted to watch TV because his brother had started their favorite Road Runner DVD and he didn’t want to miss anything. I started my spiel.

“I hear you’re frustrated because you already had your snack and want more and you’re feeling impatient because you also want to watch TV… “

I’d barely finished before he’d turned his back and walked away. He apparently had neither the time nor the inclination to deal with my listening. It was boring, and besides, it was highly unlikely after however minutes that he’d get his way. Better to cut his losses. Smart kid. While that wasn’t exactly how active listening was supposed to work, the outcome was good enough for me. Hell, if boring my kids into compliance works, call me Mr. Monotone. I was ready to go all in on this active listening stuff until I ran up hard against its limitations.

The next day I was startled my kids barreling into the house from where they’d been playing in the yard. They were both screaming and crying, which made the dog start barking, which made me want to yell. But I steadied myself and managed to get the boys to sit down. I was time to start listening as actively as I possibly could.

I started with the youngest who seemed most distraught. What, I asked, was going on here?

“My brother won’t let me play a superhero game,” he accused angrily.

“Okay what I’m hearing you say is …”

“Wa always play superheroes!” his brother interrupted loudly launching the pair into a fresh round of arguments.

I calmed them again and tried to start over, this time with the older brother. “Okay, what I’m hearing you say is that you’re tired of playing superheroes and want to try …”

“He won’t even play mutants!” his younger brother yelled, setting the pair off once more.

It went on like this for a while. And even when I could get an active listening rhythm we could not find a solution. There was more yelling and door slamming. My wife finally separated the pair leaving me to stew. Where’d the magic gone? What had happened?

Then it hit me. I was active listening, sure. The boys? Not so much. And that was the problem. The active listening would not work for group conflict resolution until all parties were active listening. And as good as I want to be as a father, teaching my kids how to actively listen to one another feels like a serious long term project. One I’m hesitant to undertake if I’m honest.

Which is not to say I’m giving up on active listening. It’s a good tool to have in my parenting tool kit if the conditions are right. I’m sure I’ll continue using it in some capacity or another and it will be helpful. If anything, it taught me that being more present and in the moment when my kids are struggling is important and worthwhile. Besides, if I keep it up, maybe by modeling active listening, my kids will pick it up themselves.

On Friday night as we finished the dishes, I sighed and complained wearily. “God, what a day. I’m so tired, I just want it to be done.”

My wife looked at me. “What I’m hearing,” she said. “Is that you want to go upstairs, get in bed and watch TV with me.”

She wasn’t wrong. And I felt heard.