Here is a chance to watch a parent putting Active Listening to work at home when they are confronted with nitty-gritty problems that mothers and fathers encounter. It is wise not to get so involved in these authentic situations that you forget to take note of the Active Listening this parent is using.
Danny: The Child Afraid to Go to Sleep
In handling this situation, this mother, a P.E.T. graduate, used a few of the 12 Communication Roadblocks, but she also relied heavily on Active Listening. The child, age eight, had been having increasing trouble getting to sleep since he was five years old. About eight months before the following dialogue took place, he moved out of a room he had been sharing with two younger brothers. Although eager for a room of his own, Danny found his sleeping problem intensified.
MOTHER: It's late. Turn out the light and go to sleep.
DANNY: I'm not going to sleep.
MOTHER: You have to, it's late. You'll be tired tomorrow.
DANNY: I'm not going to sleep.
MOTHER (harshly): Turn that light off now!
DANNY (flatly): I'm never going to sleep.
MOTHER (I feel like strangling him. I'm so tired, I can't stand this tonight...I go into the kitchen, count to ten, decide that I'm going in there and try Active Listening even if it kills me! Entering Danny's room): "C'mon, it's late but I'll sit on your bed for a while and rest my feet before I do the dishes. [She takes the book from him, turns off the lights, closes the door, and sits on the bed beside him, leaning back against the wall.]
DANNY: Gimme that book! Don't turn off the light. Get out of here. I don't want you in here. I'm not going to sleep. I hate you!
MOTHER: You're feeling very angry.
DANNY: Yeah, I hate school, and I'll ever go back, never!
MOTHER (He loves school.): You're fed up with school.
DANNY: It's horrible. I'm not good in school. Don't know anything. I should be in second grade. [He's in third.] Math, I don't know it. [He is very good at it.] The teacher must think we're in a high school or something.
MOTHER: Math's pretty hard for you.
DANNY: No! It's easy. Just don't feel like doing it.
DANNY (sudden shift): I like baseball. Much rather play baseball than go to school.
MOTHER: You really like baseball.
DANNY: Do you have to go to college? [Oldest brother will soon enter college and there is much family talk about it.]
DANNY: How long do yo have to go to school?
MOTHER: you have to finish high school.
DANNY: Well, I'm not going to college. Don't have to, right?
DANNY: Good, I'll play baseball.
MOTHER: Baseball's really fun.
DANNY: Yeah. [Completely calmed down, talking comfortably, no anger.] Well, good night.
MOTHER: Good night.
DANNY: Will you sit up with me some more?
DANNY (pulls up covers which had been kicked off; carefully covers up Mother's knees and pats them): Comfortable?
DANNY: You're welcome. [Period of quiet, then Danny starts snorting and sniffing with much exaggerated clearing of throat and nose. Snort, snort, snort. Danny does have slight allergy with stuffy nose, but the symptoms are never acute. Mother has never heard Danny snort like this before.]
MOTHER: Nose bugging you?
DANNY: No. [Snort, snort.]
MOTHER: Nose really bugs you.
DANNY: Yeah. [snort]. [Sigh of anguish.] Oh, I wish you didn't have to breathe through your nose when you sleep.
MOTHER (very surprised at this, tempted to ask where that idea came from): You think you have to breathe through your nose when you sleep?
DANNY: I know I have to.
MOTHER: You feel sure about it.
DANNY: I know it. Tommy told me, a long time ago. [Much admired friend, two years older.] he said you have to. You can't breathe through your mouth when you sleep.
MOTHER: You mean you aren't supposed to?
DANNY: You just can't [snort]. Mommy, that's right, isn't it? I mean, you gotta breathe through your nose when you sleep, don't you? [Long explanation--many questions from Danny about admired friend. "He wouldn't lie to me."]
MOTHER: (Explains that friend is probably trying to help but kids get false information sometimes. Much emphasis from Mother that everyone breathes through the mouth when sleeping.)
DANNY (very relieved): Well, good night.
MOTHER: Good night. [Danny breathing easily through mouth.]
DANNY (suddenly): Snort.
MOTHER: Still scary.
DANNY: Uh-huh. Mommy, what if I go to sleep breathing through my mouth--and my noise is stuff--and what if in the middle of the night when I'm sound asleep--what if I closed my mouth?
MOTHER (realized that he has been afraid to go to sleep for years because he is afraid he would choke to death; thinks; "Oh my poor baby"): You're afraid you might choke maybe?
DANNY: Uh-huh. You gotta breathe. [He couldn't say, "I might die."]
MOTHER (more explaining): It simply couldn't happen. Your mouth would open--just like your heart pumps blood or eyes blink.
DANNY: Are you sure?
MOTHER: Yes, I'm sure.
DANNY: Well, good night.
MOTHER: Good night, dear. [Kiss. Danny is asleep in minutes.]
The case of Danny is not a unique example of a parent whose Active Listening brought about the dramatic resolution of an emotional problem. Reports like these from parents in our classes confirm our belief that most parents can learn the skill employed by professional counselors well enough to put it to work to help their own children solve rather deep-seated problems that used to be considered the exclusive province of professionals.
Sometimes this kind of therapeutic listening brings only a cathartic release of a child's feelings; all the child seems to need is an empathic ear or a sounding board.