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 of their being. It reminds me of various homeless people I've seen from time to time, doing outrageous things to get attention. When no one is listening, the human ego gives license to a wide range of behaviors, as if to say "Notice me. Pay attention to me. LISTEN and then I'll know that I exist."

Yet sometimes, the gap that is created by the different generations seems like an impossible chasm to cross. Three year old Jack's mother could talk until she's blue in the face reassuring him that she's getting him the juice right away, but it wouldn't necessarily help him feel understood because she didn't move the minute he said "move." And like Sarah, most children feel misunderstood when they're told "no" about something they really want. But as parents, it's our responsibility to say "no" some of the time. Why do these things cause children to feel misunderstood? I asked the children why they thought grownups didn't understand them sometimes. One child said "Sometimes parents or grownups have a different language, like a different way to say stuff and so you say something in the way you know how, but they don't understand the way you said it, and they only know their way."

Perhaps misunderstanding arises because we do, in a way, speak a different language from our children. At least in terms of the agendas we have. The child's agenda includes having their needs met immediately, playing rather than working, struggling for independence in a situation where, of necessity, they're extremely dependent. Our agenda includes working, maintaining a time schedule, teaching our children to be responsible, making decisions regarding their safety, health and well-being. Needless to say, sometimes our agenda will conflict with our children's. When that happens, how can we still help our children feel listened to?

I think our job as parents includes making an effort to listen, showing we're listening by reflecting our children's feelings, even stating "I understand you," or "I see you feel misunderstood. How can I help you feel like I'm listening?" Sometimes, however, our best efforts simply won't be enough. It's at those times when our children must depend upon their own resources to handle their feelings. I asked the children if there were things they did when they felt an adult wasn't listening. Here are their insightful responses: "Sometimes I go and try to write it out and see if that makes me feel better." "Sometimes I try to understand the way that the grownup would say it, and try and say it their way." "Sometimes I try to talk to a kid who might understand my way to talk and the grown-ups way to talk so that the kid could tell the grownup and then the grown up would answer to me."

As parents, we can teach our children these very strategies. To help your child learn to "write it out," encourage him to "show you" how angry, dissappointed, sad he is by drawing it or writing about it on a piece of paper. Use notes yourself when you feel overwhelmed with your feelings, or when you feel that a power struggle with your child has gotten to the point where everyone is having trouble hearing each other. One mother used this very successfully with her teenage son, with whom she was having a great deal of difficulty. In her note to him, she stated that she felt sad that their relationship wasn't as good as it used to be, and that she was hurt by his angry words and expressions of negative feelings. She slipped it under his door. Fifteen minutes later he came in with the note in his hand and said "I feel the same way." Only a few words, but both parties left feeling "heard," and the relationship improved. Even young children can scribble furiously on a piece of paper when they feel misunderstood. This "venting" often calms the child and parent both.

To encourage your children to "say it your way" ask them if they can think of a different way to say it when it's clear that they're having trouble expressing themselves, or when they clearly feel frustrated by your lack of understanding. Often when a child "restates" something in a different way we do hear it differently, and our response can be altered so the child feels understood, even while we're setting a limit.

Finally, there will be times that your child simply needs a different ear than yours. That "other ear" may help your child translate his feelings or thoughts to you, or it may simply provide your child with someone besides you who helps him feel understood. To foster this, encourage your child to develop relationships that you approve of - with peers, with older children, with young adults, with a friend's parents, with grandparents. The more loving, responsive relationships your child has, the more listened to he will feel.