kimHave you ever found yourself at a loss for words when a child is acting out, uncooperative, or simply ignoring what you’re asking them to do? You’re not alone. We’ve all found ourselves struggling to respond when we need to address a challenging behavior, and we just can’t seem to connect.
Enter reflective listening, a communication technique that can transform your interactions with kids while also helping them build a deeper understanding of their own feelings.
What is reflective listening? It’s a way of connecting that goes beyond just hearing their words. It’s about understanding the emotions behind their actions—and helping them understand, too.1 This powerful tool can enhance emotional intelligence for kids, build trust, and foster a strong connection. Whether you’re a parent, teacher, or caregiver, mastering reflective listening skills can make a big difference in how you connect with the kids in your care.
What is Reflective Listening?
You’re probably familiar with active listening, a communication technique that requires the listener to truly engage with what their conversation partner is saying instead of simply waiting for their turn to talk. In active listening, the listener2:
- Gives their full attention to the speaker and sets aside distractions
- Makes eye contact
- Holds the intention to understand rather than respond
Reflective listening techniques require all of the above, plus one more step: After understanding what the child is feeling, the adult names and describes those emotions.
For example, you might tell a child, “You’re feeling sad because you didn’t want to stop playing,” or, “You feel frustrated because you wanted another turn.” In other words, you become a mirror, helping the child understand their own feelings more clearly.
The Importance of Active Listening in Parent-Child Communication
Children need to feel heard just as much as adults do. In some ways, it’s even more vital for kids because it’s harder for them to put their feelings into words on their own. On top of that, kids have to navigate the world with so little power of their own, so it’s important to build emotional courage. Imagine how validating it is to at least feel heard by the adults around you—especially when they’re asking you to follow rules you don’t always like.
That’s why it’s so important for adults to use active listening skills with children. By listening actively, you communicate that:
- The child’s feelings and thoughts have value
- It is always safe to express their feelings to you
- You have a strong, caring bond, even when you disagree
In the end, you’re still the one setting the rules and expectations. But when you take time to hear your child’s feelings and let them know you’ve heard them—even if the answer is still no—you help them build trust in you and confidence in themselves, strengthening your relationship.
How Reflective Listening Differs from Passive Listening
In both passive and active listening, the listener is trying to understand the speaker. There’s a key difference in reflective listening, and it comes down to your goal as the reflective listener.
In reflective listening, your aim is to help the speaker understand their own feelings better.
Why is this so important for effective communication with children? Because reflective listening actively shows kids the connections between their actions and the feelings underneath. It’s an essential emotional intelligence skill, and reflective listening is one of the most effective ways to teach it.
The Impact of Reflective Listening on Child Development
Reflective communication skills can have a long-lasting impact on a child’s emotional development, from creating secure attachments to building self-esteem and self-reliance. Here are 3 key benefits of using reflective listening with kids:
#1 Building Trust and Connection with Your Child
Hearing their emotions put into words by an adult helps children feel:
- Safe and supported
- Worthy of attention
It’s also okay if you get it wrong and they set you straight—don’t be surprised to hear responses like, “I’m not sad. I’m MAD!” The effort you make to understand is what builds that sense of trust and connection.
#2 Enhancing Emotional Intelligence through Reflective Listening
Reflective listening involves putting words to feelings. Practicing it helps you deepen your understanding of the reasons for the child’s behavior, but it also helps the child develop emotional intelligence by:
- Building emotional vocabulary – Try to choose descriptive, specific words likeproud, brave, frustrated, lonely, hurt,etc., to help them dig into the nuances of their feelings.
- Providing comfort with talking about emotions – When you calmly name and describe their emotions, children see that feelings are welcome and talking about them is safe.
- Learning to separate themselves from their feelings – While teaching emotions, try to use “You feel” phrases instead of “You are” phrases. It’s a small difference, but it’s important to remember that we aren’t our feelings. “You feel angry” is not the same as “You are angry.”3
#3 Developing Empathy and Understanding in Children
Reflective communication is a commitment. It requires you to:
- Stop what you’re doing
- Listen attentively
- Take time to absorb and understand the speaker’s message
- Put the emotions into words
It’s a powerful act of empathy and compassion—and each time you do it, you’re showing the child how to use those skills themselves to build stronger relationships in the future.
Key Strategies for Practicing Reflective Listening with Kids
Reflective listening can be a challenging communication skill to practice. As adults, we’re taught not to tell people how they’re feeling or what they’re thinking. So, we might feel uncomfortable labeling another person’s feelings, or we might worry that we’re going to get it wrong.
However, it’s a little different with children. After all, it’s our job to teach them the words for their feelings, along with appropriate ways to show them. It’s not important that you get the emotions just right—opening the door to talk about feelings is what matters.
When you’re ready to start reflective listening, try these strategies to help4:
- Create a safe and supportive environment – Reflective communication should help children feel safe in talking about their emotions. Your tone of voice, facial expression, and body language can all help communicate a sense of safety. Try putting yourself on the child’s level by sitting or kneeling, making eye contact, and maintaining a calm tone of voice for the most effective listening.
- Encourage open communication – Try to listen without judgment and without reacting negatively, even when children express challenging feelings.
- Validate emotions and feelings – Whatever the child tells you they’re thinking or feeling, express that it’s okay and understandable to feel that way. Keep in mind that reflective listening is about naming and connecting with emotions, not immediately seeking solutions.
- Ask open-ended questions – Reflective listening works best if you combine it with questions that invite your child to find solutions. Try following a “You seem…” or “You’re feeling…” statement with a question about how they might handle that emotion: “What would make you feel better?” or “What would you like to do instead?”
- Watch for nonverbal cues – It’s not always easy to identify emotions from behavior or words. That’s why it’s so important to note the non-verbal cues that go along with the behavior. Pay close attention to body language, facial expressions, context, and gestures.
Real-Life Examples of Reflective Listening
Reflective listening can be helpful in any situation. Not only will it help the child understand their feelings better and improve their mental health, but it also helps you navigate a challenging moment step-by-step, giving you time to collect yourself and think of possible solutions.
Here are some reflective listening examples:
Naming Big Feelings
Luke seems to be throwing a temper tantrum. He’s yelling and throwing crayons. You could just address the behavior and take the crayons away. But you notice some cues:
- Context – Mom just dropped him off
- Body language – He’s hugging his favorite stuffie tight for comfort
- Facial expression – Instead of looking mad, he looks anxious
You’re not sure what’s going on, but you can see that Luke doesn’t have words for the overwhelming feeling. You take a guess: “Luke, you’re feeling so upset. Are you missing Mom right now?” Whether your guess is right or wrong, you’ve shown Luke that it’s safe to talk about that scary feeling with you.
Processing Difficult Feelings
Hannah is crying after being told she has to let another child use her favorite toy. You say: “You feel sad that it’s not your turn with the dinosaur anymore.”
But Hannah says no—she’s sad because the other child doesn’t want to play dinosaurs together. Even though your first guess was incorrect, mirroring helped Hannah find words for her feelings and start to move through them.
Finding Appropriate Outlets for Feelings
Ryan won’t sit still for quiet reading time. You have some context: It’s his birthday tomorrow.
Instead of punishing Ryan for acting out, you say, “You’re so excited about your birthday, Ryan! It’s hard to think about reading right now.”
Ryan agrees, so you let him write a story about his birthday instead of reading today. By using reflective listening instead of negative consequences, you helped Ryan:
- Understand his feelings
- Connect with you
- Find an appropriate outlet for his excitement
Listen From the Heart with Help From Slumberkins
Reflective listening doesn’t have to be perfect—kids won’t hesitate to tell you if you’re off base. The important aspect is that by talking about feelings honestly, you show that it’s safe to express any and all emotions. Don’t be afraid to try reflective listening with children, whether at home or in the classroom.
If you’re looking for more guidance on communicating from the heart with the children in your life, Slumberkins is here to help.
Our Mindfulness Collection is packed with activities and lesson plans that are all about fostering connection and learning between kids, grownups, and families. Take a look today and discover new tools to help you raise the next generation of resilient, remarkable kids.
- Dimensions of Early Childhood. Use of child centered play therapy responses in a child care setting. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1150455.pdf
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Active listening. https://www.cdc.gov/parents/essentials/toddlersandpreschoolers/communication/activelistening.html
- Dan Siegel. Mindsight. https://drdansiegel.com/mindsight/