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When Children Feel Misunderstood

Nine year old Sarah wanted to go to a friend's house to spend the night, but her parents said "no." She pleaded and begged, and finally ended up sulking in her room for most of the weekend. Three year old Jack asked his mother for juice while she was working on the computer. She nodded her head and said "o.k." As she went to save the file she was working on before getting up, Jack flew into a tantrum, screaming "Juice! Juice!" as he flailed around on the floor.

What do these children have in common? Neither one feels understood or listened to by their parents at the moment. In the first case, Sarah's wishes conflicted with those of her parents. When she was told that her wishes were being denied, she assumed that her parents must not truly understand how important this sleepover was, or they wouldn't have denied it to her. For Jack, when his mother's actions didn't immediately match her verbal reply that she'd get him juice, he too felt misunderstood and began to throw a tantrum.

In this column I spend a significant amount of time telling you what you can do to facilitate your relationship with your children. We've talked about communication, we've discussed discipline, we've looked at self-esteem. And yet there are bound to be times when misunderstandings and blocked communication still occur, in spite of your best efforts. In the scenarios above, the parents didn't do anything wrong, and yet their children still felt misunderstood. This month, I thought it would be interesting to look at communication from a child's perspective. How does a child feel when he thinks he's not being listened to? What resources are available to him, or what has he learned about dealing with miscommunication?

I asked a number of children what they felt like when they had trouble making someone else understand them. Here is what they said. "When someone doesn't understand me, even though I say it again and again, I feel like wanting to scream and yell, and just tear them to pieces." "I think what you feel when you feel misunderstood is anger and a lot of other things." "If you were in a situation where someone didn't understand you and you tried to make them understand, and they still didn't understand, I guess you'd feel very upset because you'd be trying and trying, but you wouldn't be able to get them to understand." "I feel sadness, `cause when people misunderstand me, I really don't get to be who I want to be or what I want to be."

In speaking with these children who ranged in age from 6 - 10, I was struck with the intensity of their feelings about the topic. Clearly the most poignant response is the final one. When a child feels misunderstood she feels like she can't be herself. No wonder our children sulk, scream, tantrum and cry at these moments. When our children think that we're not listening to them, they experience powerfully negative emotions that threaten the very core