Getting My Kids To Talk To Me
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Becky HarlingBecky Harling is a certified speaker, leadership coach, and trainer with the John Maxwell Team. She is the author of several books, including How to Listen So People Will Talk, and has spent more than thirty years teaching the Word of God both nationally and internationally. Becky and her husband have four adult children and fourteen grandchildren. They make their home in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and travel widely.
Do you want your kids to open up more? Becky Harling shares what parents can do to help their children express themselves.
Getting My Kids To Talk To Me
Ann: As our kids have gotten older, it hasn’t been easy at times; because they’ve been letting us know some of the things we didn’t do quite so right.
Dave: It’s a wonderful thing when your child comes to you, as an adult, and says, “Dad, I need to tell you something you did that…”
Ann: I’m really grateful that they’re coming, but it’s—
Dave: I’m not! [Laughter] I’d rather just not know.
Ann: This is the difference in our personalities!
Dave: It’s in the past; just let it go.
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.
One of our sons came to me—this was recently—and he said, “Mom, I wish that you would have cared more about my heart than my behavior.” I was a little bit defensive, like, “What do you mean? I cared about your heart.”
He said, “But when I would share my struggles of what I was going through—maybe I did something that was wrong—you instantly centered on what I had done rather than why I had done it.”
I thought about that; and I really prayed about that, like, “Lord, is that true?” I felt like, “Yes, I did that.” I cared more about/I would listen to what he was saying—and then I would have some objective reason why he shouldn’t have done that or maybe a biblical response of why God says he shouldn’t do it—instead of saying: “Tell me more. Why do you think that’s going on?” or “Why do you think you’re experiencing that? What’s the pull?—what’s behind the action?”
I wish I would have learned that in my earlier, younger years; because I wish I could have changed that.
Dave: You know, one of the things we need to learn, as parents, is: “How do we get our child’s heart?—not just their behavior—but their heart.”
We have somebody who’s going to help us do that today. Becky Harling is a mom, a wife—14 grandkids; 4 kids—an author. Welcome to FamilyLife Today, Becky. Glad to have you here.
Becky: Hey, it is amazing to be with you guys! I’m having so much fun here with you, so thank you for inviting me.
Ann: We’re happy to have you back.
You’ve written a book called How to Listen So Your Kids Will Talk, which—you sit in that title a little bit, like: “Hmm, how to listen. It takes listening for my kids to talk. A lot of times, we think, ‘I want my kids to talk more as teenagers.’ Maybe it comes down to listening.”
You really have some experience. You’ve written some books—but you also wrote another book about listening—so this is a passion of yours; isn’t it?
Becky: Yes, because it’s where God had to work in my heart! [Laughter] Oftentimes, you write books or you speak messages to the deepest need in your own heart. It’s not that I’m an expert listener; it’s that God had to change me, and I had to learn how to listen.
Dave: Let’s talk about that, because you mentioned earlier this week how you grew up in sort of an abusive home. Talk about that a little bit: “Is that where you felt the need? Were you not heard? Did you have to learn? What was that like?”
Becky: I have a rather hard story. I grew up in a pastor home—my father was a pastor—he was also a president of a Bible college. He was also very abusive, very authoritative, and really sexually abused me while I was growing up. Harsh behavior at home, a lot of hitting—
Ann: Okay, wait, wait. Just that alone—but he’s also your pastor.
Ann: That’s hard to get your head around that, as an authoritative person from God.
Ann: That’s not easy.
Becky: No, it wasn’t easy. You know, my mother had a lot of emotional issues. There were times, where I would try to bring up that I was being hurt; but I was silenced. It was like, “Don’t ever say that about your father again.” I grew up with all these mixed messages.
Unfortunately, when you grow up in a home like that—where your voice has been silenced, silenced, silenced—you definitely wrestle with things like anxiety and depression. But you can also come out like: “I’m going to raise my voice, and it’s going to be heard!”
Sexual abuse is such a big topic. To any of your listeners out there, if that’s your story, I’d really encourage you, number one, to find a good, godly therapist and work it through. Don’t just shove it under the carpet; I did that. And then I would encourage you to find a godly mentor, who will pray over you while you’re going through therapy; because that can be life-changing for you.
But as a parent, if you don’t deal with all the emotional baggage from your own childhood, it’s going to come out in unhealthy ways with your own kids. For me, it meant I talked too much.
Ann: —because you never had a voice before.
Becky: No; I really wanted to raise godly kids. Somehow, in my thinking as a mother, it was all about: “I just have to teach them this verse,” or “I have to tell them this…” and “This is what God wants for them...” I was very hard on myself as a mother, I think, because I grew up in such a messed-up home, I really wanted to do it well. But sometimes, even that meant I was talking too much.
I remember a day, where I was struggling with one of my teens. I remember the Lord speaking to me in a grocery store; He brought me back to that verse in Exodus, where it says, “I will fight for you while you remain silent.” Sometimes, as parents, we just have to get on our knees. Sometimes, we have to cry things out on our knees. There was a season where one of our kids/I really felt like she was walking away from the Lord. I took an entire month and prayed through the book of Ephesians for her. Every morning, I prayed through that entire book, putting her name in. God brought her back, miraculously, which I’m very thankful for.
But when you grow up in a home, where you don’t have a voice, you’ve got to deal with that; or you’re going to talk too much in your own home.
Dave: When did you figure that out? I mean, when you were a young mom, were you—looking back now—were you talking too much, and there was a day or a time, where you were like, “Oh, my goodness. I need to just be quiet and listen”?
Becky: You know, it was a gradual journey for me, really. It began one morning on my knees before the Lord, when I had had a really rough morning with one of the kids. I thought, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I totally don’t know what I’m doing.” The Lord really spoke to me that morning and said, “I want to teach you how to listen.” But it continued along the way.
I kind of had this relationship with the Lord, where I talked with Him all day long. I wasn’t like, “Okay, I’m just going to do a few minutes with the Lord in the morning and say a goodnight prayer,”—I needed God all day long—because seriously, I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d be helping with homework, but underneath, I’d be having this conversation with the Lord: “Lord, I need You to you help me to listen right now.”
Ann: Paul said, “Pray without ceasing.” I think, as a young mom, I did the same thing; because I didn’t have these long periods of time by myself. I learned to just—
Dave: You had no time by yourself!
Becky: Yes! That’s where you go to the bathroom—right?—
Becky: —lock the door.
Dave: And they come in with you. [Laughter]
Ann: I think that’s one of the sweet parts of God training us; He always uses every stage of our lives. That was the stage I learned to talk to God all day about everything.
Becky: Yes, yes!
To go back to your question about: “When did I learn this?”—I think what I want to stress here is it wasn’t a one-time learning:
- It was when I was sobbing on my knees before the Lord, because my little negotiator had negotiated all week; and I didn’t feel like I handled it well.
- It was going before the Lord when our son/I realized that he had cheated on a test, and really didn’t need to cheat on any test, because he was really smart.
- It was dealing with a teenager, who was telling me I wasn’t listening to her.
Even now, with our adult kids—you mentioned at the beginning of the show how your kids came to you—Steve and I sat down last year with our kids and said, “Okay, you’re all here; let’s talk about it. What did we do right, but what do you wish we had done different?” We want them to feel heard as adults; right?
Ann: Yes, yes.
Becky: Our kids are very verbal, so they are very honest with us, you know, that: “These are some of the things you did wrong…”; you know?
Dave: What did they say? What did you hear?
Becky: Well, one of the things that we did wrong is they said: “You know, Mom, you got too defensive about things when we would confront you.” I know that about myself. When somebody confronts you, it’s easy to just kind of pull in and get defensive, and try to defend yourself. And talking too much, for me.
For Steve it was, “Dad, you were so wrapped up in ministry that you didn’t always show us what it looks like to be friends with unbelievers and have them in our home. We wish you had done that differently.”
I mention this in the book: we wanted to raise emotionally- and spiritually-healthy kids, who could deal with their emotions; but neither Steve nor I grew up knowing how to deal with emotions in a healthy way.
Ann: This is Dave and I exactly! [Laughter]
Ann: Part of it is our baggage that we carried in, because emotions and feelings/they were never important.
Ann: So they were never acknowledged. If anything, you get beyond that, like, “Hey, let’s not sit there!” I did that as a mom too.
I’m watching my kids now, as adults, with their kids: if their son or their daughter is upset and crying—I felt uncomfortable when my kids did that; so I would say, “It’s okay.” I would try to change the subject; I’m like, “You’re going to be fine!” or I would be very analytical of why it will be fine instead of letting them feel—I didn’t like them to be sad, so I’m always rushing them out of that.
Becky: I know; yes.
Ann: In your book, you talk about: “Help them find their feelings.”
Becky: Yes; I had to grow [in] this as a mother too. One of the ways you do this is giving them permission. I grew up with messages all the time: “Stop crying,” “Why are you crying?”; you know?
Ann: Me too.
Becky: I was like, “Okay, I don’t want to give that to my kids”; so when they would cry, I would cry too. Then Steve would say, “Don’t you cry too; you’re going to make it worse!” But actually, I think that was my way of offering empathy.
Ann: I like that.
Becky: I think the emotion where Steve and I struggled a lot was anger. There are so many messed-up messages about anger. In my home, I wasn’t allowed to express any anger—it was wrong/flat-out wrong—unless you were a parent.
Ann: Ungodly, probably.
Becky: Right; yes. In Steve’s home, he was taught, too, like: “Well, we don’t want to be angry,” “We don’t want to be angry.” So we have these kids, and they get angry sometimes. It’s like, “Okay, do you correct them for being angry?”
Then you find yourself, as a mom or a dad, getting angry with the things that we wish we’d done better. I think we all have those feelings. There are so many times, where I’ll be like, “Oh, I wish I had done this different or better...” Apologizing to our adult kids has been hugely pivotal for us—apologizing for: “Look, I’m sorry, I didn’t handle that well,”—and apologizing to your kids as you’re raising them in the home.
Becky: The night that we gathered our adult kids around and said: “What did we do wrong?” “What did we do right?”— the thing that they said we did right was—“You apologized a lot when you were wrong.” That apparently stuck with them. The power of an apology is huge.
I want to talk for just a second to the listener out there, who maybe doesn’t have a great relationship right now with their teen, or their young adult, or their adult [child]. I want you to know that an apology goes a long way, so you take the first step.
Ann: I don’t think it ever ends either. One of our sons was saying, “Mom, when I’m talking about what I’m feeling, I don’t want you just to say, ‘Well…’—and have an answer to it—‘Well, this is happening...’” If he was expressing such sorrow, I would say, “Well, there are good things that are happening too…”
Becky: Yes! You want to try to fix it; right? As a mom, I get it!
Ann: —totally fixing him.
Becky: I do too.
Ann: As I read your book, I thought, “Oh, I’m getting it now. I just need to sit in it. I need to sit in it with him and say, ‘I’m sorry that you’re feeling like that.’”
Sometimes, he’ll say, “Mom, you’ve apologized so many times; you just need to start listening!
Becky: I get that too. [Laughter]
Ann: “Just listen to me.”
I feel like we’re always learning, and God is taking layers off and continuing to instruct us.
I feel like I was good at asking good questions. One of the things you talked about in the book is you’re saying: “Ask a great question, but don’t interrogate.”
Becky: Yes; you have to make questions fun, because we’ve all been there; right? Your kid comes home from school, and what’s the first question out of your mouth?—“Do you have homework tonight?”—they don’t want to answer that question; you know! So we have to make question-asking fun, and it needs to be part of the life of the family.
Maybe at the dinner table you’re saying to your six-year-old son—“When did you feel like a superhero today?” or “When were you kind to somebody in your class today?” or “What do you love most about your friends?” “What do you think makes a good friend?”—really learning to ask them questions.
I think that this is so important for two reasons:
- number one, it gives you a window into your child’s heart. One of the games that we like to play is “Would You Rather?”: “Would you rather climb a tree or go on a hike?” “Would you rather ride an ATV or go swimming?”
Dave: “Yes, yes; hike; ATV.”
Becky: Yes, yes! You sound like my husband! [Laughter]
But “Would You Rather?” helps you understand your child’s heart more.
I remember we were playing this with some of our grandkids. We were like, “Would you rather be smart or pretty?” Our little granddaughter jumped up and said, “Pretty!” Our daughter said, “Well, there you have it.” [Laughter] But it gives you a window into their heart and their soul, so question-asking is really an important part of family life.
Ann: I’m thinking about, when one of our sons was in high school, and sometimes I would ask questions to interrogate what was happening.
Becky: Yes. [Laughter]
Ann: It was out of my own—
Dave: —like a spy.
Ann: Yes!—like a spy, out of my own fear.
He was talking at the dinner table, and he said, “I did this thing with this one guy…” Here’s what I say: “Oh, isn’t he that bad kid, who’s always in trouble, that smokes pot?” That’s what I say! [Laughter] Why do I say that?—because I’m fearful—“Oh, no; are you becoming friends with that kid?”
“Now, I want you [son] to know how I’m judging him,” and “He’s a bad kid,” and “Stay far away.” It was all out of my own fear.
Ann: I think the words we speak—as we listen to our kids, and they’re sharing—I was manipulating the whole thing; do you know what I mean?
Becky: I do! When we ask questions, we can’t ask with an ulterior motive, like, “I’m really trying to figure out what in the world you were doing at that party last night.”
Our kids would say: “Mom, do you really want to know the answer, or are you trying to fish for some other thing here? Let’s get that out in the open.” Aren’t we lucky that we have kids that will confront us?
Ann: Yes! What about kids that don’t/that hold it inside?
Becky: Okay, this is a big topic; because there are some kids that you really have difficulty getting them to talk. There’s actually something called selective mutism—where kids are very, very shy—and where they won’t talk very much. There are some ideas in the book for that. One of them is: “Give your child enough time to respond.”
If you’re an extrovert like me, you want to dive in and help them with the answer. Your child gets in the back seat of the car after school, and you’re saying, “How was your day?” Count to ten or fifteen and give them the space to answer that; don’t dive in and say, “Oh, well…” [Laughter]
Ann: That’s what I would do.
Becky: Yes; me, too; so we have to learn to give these kids the time to respond. They don’t do well with gunfire questions: “Okay, what happened in gym?” “Oh, what happened in math?”
It’s like, “Wait, you’re confusing me; you’re giving me too many questions at one time.” So slow it down.
One of the things—this is going to seem unrelated to listening, but it’s so not—in my life, that the Holy Spirit really had to do and change in me, was I realized that I lived my life with a continual sense of inner hurry. I was always in a hurry.
Ann: I’m still like that.
Becky: Me, too; God is still working on me.
I remember this profound moment, where I was reading my Bible one morning. I realized Jesus never turned to the disciples and said, “Would you guys hurry up and get your sandals on? We’re running late!” I mean, really, that was profound to me!
I thought, I’m always telling these kids—“Hurry up and get in the van,” “Hurry up; we’re running late for church,” “Hurry up; we have to go to school,” or “…clubs,”—or whatever. That sense of hurry does not encourage conversation; so I had to—and I have to—slow that down in my soul.
Ann: I remember reading a book, years ago, by Jean Lush. She was talking about her nine-year-old daughter. She could tell her daughter was feeling some real angst, so she was just trying to probe it out. She thought: “I have things to do. Come on; tell me what’s going on. What’s happening?” She’s interrogating, and her nine-year-old was quiet. Then, after a while, she said, “Mom, I need you to lie down in your soul—
Becky: Oh, I love that!
Ann: —before I can talk to you.” Jean, in the book, says, “I realized I’m always in a rush. I’m always onto the next thing. That daughter felt it, and I needed to just rest and sit with her before she would open up her soul to me.” Isn’t that good?
Becky: That’s so good! You know, even in this season of life, there are several times a day, where I feel that similar inner angst, like, “Oh, I’m in a hurry; I’m in a hurry.” I literally will pause and say, “Okay, why am I feeling rushed right now?” Then I invite Jesus into that moment and say, “Lord Jesus, calm my soul. Calm the inner angst I feel right now. Help me to slow down and to be able to listen and be present in this moment.”
Ann: That’s good.
Dave: I would say, for me—I don’t know if I represent most men—but I think it’s easier to be in a hurry.
Dave: It’s easier to be rushed than to be intimate with my son.
Dave: I want to listen; I want to hear his heart—but I really don’t—because if I do, it’s going to be intimate; and it’s scary. I’m just being honest: it’s like I’ll run to the next task; I’ll go to my office, and I’ll pick up my phone; and do whatever—listening so your child will talk?—part of me is like: “No; I’d rather not, because I don’t know where that’s going to go.”
Yet, I would also say to the parent listening, “This is the most important thing you’ll do today: is listen in such a way that your child will open up.” It may be intimate, and it may be scary, and it may not go the way you want; but it is the best thing you’ll do today. All those other things, as important as they are, they’re probably not as important as being the dad or mom that your son or daughter is really longing for you to be. It has a lot to do with saying, “This son/this daughter matters so much that I’m going to listen.”
Dave: And they’re probably going to talk.
Bob: I think one of the things I’ve learned over the years is that, before I offer any input in my conversations with my kids, I should probably say about three times, “Tell me more,” and really do a good job of listening and drawing them out. My first impulse is often to provide the wisdom or fix the problem as opposed to drawing them out, and letting them talk, and listening well.
Dave and Ann Wilson have been talking today with Becky Harling about How to Listen So Your Kids Will Talk; that’s the title of Becky’s book. It’s a book we’re making available this week to FamilyLife Today listeners, those of you who are regular listeners and want to help us expand the outreach of FamilyLife Today—help us provide practical biblical help and hope for marriages and families all around the world, every day, through the outreach of this program—those of you who are listening as a podcast, those of you who come to our website or attend our events. You make all of this possible when you support the ongoing work of FamilyLife Today.
Again, if you can make a donation today, we’d love to send you Becky Harling’s book, How to Listen So Your Kids Will Talk: Deepen Your Connection and Strengthen Their Confidence. You can make your donation online at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call to donate: 1-800-358-6329 is our number; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Now, we have an event taking place this week at FamilyLife that we’re pretty excited about. We have David Robbins, who’s the president of FamilyLife, here with me. David, this is an event that’s happening in the Atlanta area tomorrow and Friday; and it’s an event we want to ask our listeners to join us and pray for.
David: Yes, tomorrow and Friday we have hundreds of people coming together, from across the nation, in Atlanta for The Summit on Stepfamily Ministry. The goal of it is: to help equip and mobilize laypeople, and church leaders, and pastors in how to minister to the uniqueness of a blended family; and helping those marriages thrive; and helping the kids involved in those marriages thrive and flourish according to the Word of God; and grow as a godly family.
I just want to invite you to pray for this event. If you will, pray with us:
- for God to minister deeply;
- pray for the families that will end up being impacted by the leaders coming together and getting trained, that they will go and strengthen marriages and families in ways that we couldn’t imagine;
- the stories that we hear a month from now and a year from now, maybe five years from now, would be things that grow the kingdom of God in ways that we can’t believe we get to participate in.
Bob: Our hope and prayer is that the seeds that are planted over the next couple of days at The Summit on Stepfamily Ministry would bear a rich harvest in the lives of couples who are forming blended families. We hope you’ll join us in praying for that. If you’d like more information about the summit, it’s on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com. Again, those of you who support the ministry of FamilyLife, thanks for making events like this possible through your financial support.
We hope you can join us, again, tomorrow when Dave and Ann Wilson are going to talk about: “What it is that couples, who thrive in the later years of their marriage, what are they doing that other couples aren’t doing? How do you finish well in marriage?” We’ll hear from Dave and Ann about that tomorrow. I hope you can join us for that.
On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We’ll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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