During a family discussion that was not getting anywhere, my 14-year-old granddaughter asked if we would like her to tell us what the discussion was about. She then proceeded to cut through the confusion and in one sentence summarized the main idea. Hearing approval from the adults she said, “Your problem is that you don’t listen to the children. You should listen to the children!”

I have thought about her words many times since then, finding them hitting the mark in many situations. Parents often think that listening to the children means doing what they say or giving them what they want. Really it means, hearing the message behind their words. They can’t always say directly what they mean, at times not having the language to express it, but also not always able to fully conceptualize what they would like us to know.

One way children learn about their feelings and ideas is when parents and other adults translate for them what they may be trying to say. It is also how we, as their parents, learn about our children — where they are in their development and what they may be trying to understand about their world.

Even when we can’t — or don’t want — to respond to what seems like a request or a complaint, we can respond to the message behind it if we can hear it. This is true even when messages are delivered through behavior instead of words. Often, if the behavior is something of which we disapprove or are worried about, we can get focused on our concern rather than on what the behavior can tell us. Yet, it is understanding the message that can help us know what to do about the behavior.

A concern that parents frequently ask about is social behavior. Parents worry about aggressive behavior but also about the opposite — what is often called “shyness,” or anxiety in social situations. Children who seem overly sensitive to perceived rejection or criticism may also be a source of concern. Yet such behavior may reflect a variety of personality traits as they are expressed in a developmental stage that may be especially difficult for that child.

A mother expressed concerns about her daughter who breaks down crying in situations that seem undaunting to her classmates. The mother, wanting to be supportive, has expressed this by giving long explanations to the child about the situations that upset her in order to minimize their importance.

The mother related an incident of the child feeling slighted by a friend which was completely unrealistic. The mother began trying to explain to the child what had really happened. Instead, the child cut her off by saying, “I know, I know,” and then suggested a possible solution to the situation. Her solution seemed unrealistic to the mother but she was pleased that the child was thinking about a different response.

A way to understand this is that the child was telling her mother that she has heard all the explanations and they are not helping her. What she needs is a way to behave differently and is struggling to figure out how she might do that. In effect, she hears the explanations from her parents as confirmation that there is something wrong with her that has to be fixed. What would be helpful instead, is the recognition that something in her life is hard for her and that her parents are there to help her.

If we listen to the children they are telling us who they are and how we can help them through life’s bumps.

– Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. And, she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.