Leading and Caring for Children

Listening Actively to Deep Emotions

Emotions are an opportunity for closeness. We are challenged to stop, listen, and convey our unconditional positive regard.

The goal is to hear the child’s world without judgment while communicating full acceptance. To that end I offer another convention, or sequence of agenda items to optimize one’s listening. This works best of anything I have tried.

Active Listening Convention

Imagine you have a child who is upset, fearful, withdrawn, hurt, etc. These are the steps to use this opportunity for closeness.

  1. Describe what you physically see.
  2. Paraphrase whatever message the child is sending. Keep continuing to paraphrase. Share something parallel in your own life.  The goal is to deeply hear without judgment.
  3. Offer names for the emotion(s), avoiding the words mad, sad, and angry. Use the linked Emotion Vocabulary as a reference.
  4. Describe the current situation and opportunities available.
Here is a video to set the stage for this discussion. Grace and Taryn are friends, but that relationship is not so nice on this day. As you watch the interactions of these two girls you might get some idea of the emotions Grace is experiencing at the end of the video. I use this situation to illuminate the steps in drawing out the child’s expression this way.

Applying the Convention to Grace

1. Describe what you physically see.

State the facts without using emotion words.grace

You’re out here by yourself.
You’re in the hall.

What’s going on Grace?
Why are you out here?
You seem upset.

Why? You can test this out yourself just as I did. Stating the facts as you see them, what you hear or see, allows the child to initiate to you rather than respond to you. Initiations are usually more complex than responses. Questions require responses. They push for an explanation; maybe she does not want to explain or can’t find the words to explain. It puts her on the spot. The simple observation tells the child you are there and observant. If  she wants to talk, she has a warm, safe opportunity.

The goal of step one is to get an initiation from the child to begin a conversation. If the child does not initiate, the most effective thing to do is sit down and be with her for a time, silently present and expectant, without further prodding.

If you use emotion words, you are assuming what Grace is feeling and most likely will be wrong. You won’t know how she is feeling until you have a chance to hear from her.

2. Paraphrase whatever message the child is sending.

Restate the message in different words without using emotion words.

Imagine Grace says, “I’m never going to play with Taryn again.”

You’ve had it with her.
Done, huh?
That’s the last straw.

You’re never going to play with her again, right?

I don’t think that is really true. You’re such good friends.

The best paraphrases restate the underlying message exactly, in different words entirely, and are usually short. A successful paraphrase indicates to the child that you understand what she means. If it is off, the child will usually correct you. A paraphrase connects and is the most likely avenue to further conversation. A child is more likely to expand on what she said than with any other kind of response.

Repeating the child’s words is not a paraphrase. I call it a parrot. If people did that to you, you might find it not only boring but also demeaning. A parrot doesn’t communicate that one is has caught the meaning.

Keep continuing to paraphrase as appropriate. If you want to draw the child out further you can share something exactly the same that happened to you in your own life.  The goal is to hear as much as you can about how she sees it, without adding any lessons or advice. Hear without judgment. Hopefully you can begin to understand the emotions she has.

3. Offer names for the emotion(s), avoiding the words mad, sad, and angry. Use the linked Emotion Vocabulary chart as a reference.

If that happened to me I would feel abandoned and alone.
I can imagine feeling crushed. (shunned, resentful, perplexed, or any appropriate word you can find on the vocabulary list)

You’re mad.
That’s feeling devastated.

emotionsAs the Vocabulary of Emotions page notes, mad and angry lead to yelling or violence, sad leads to tears. Contrast those three with any on the list. What do you do when you are resentful? You think. You communicate. You write.

You have no right to tell another human being how he or she feels. You can offer words as a possible guess by talking about yourself.

Using the emotion vocabulary at the time of the emotion is how one becomes emotionally intelligent, not from looking at a picture of an unknown child with a grimace on her face and answering a question such as how do you think she feels? The other effective way people learn emotion vocabulary is from stories that call up emotions and describe them.

4. Describe the current situation and opportunities available

Well, it looks like we have about fifteen more minutes before cleanup.
You probably have enough time to try something else.
I could sit with you back in the room, if you’d like.
I could use some help setting out the snack.


Examples of the Active Listening Convention


Juniper pouts and cries when she has a problem.juniper

When I approach at these times she usually screams at me.

Today I saw her in a tantrum over by the fence. I waited a few moments and then went over to her.

I said, “You have your arms crossed.”

Juniper: “Estelle won’t play with me. I asked her nicely, but she doesn’t want to play my game.”

I said, “She refused, huh?”

Juniper: “I even said ‘please’ two times.”

I said, “Wow. That happened to me before, too. I really felt abandoned. I didn’t like it at all.”

Juniper: “I didn’t like it either.”

I left her alone and in a few moments she was playing with another group of children.



Colin came into school with a scowl. He grabbed a block in each hand and spun around like a helicopter.

I said, “You are swinging blocks around.” Colin continued to spin.

I said, “I invite you to come to the art table and draw a picture if you wish.”

Colin drew a picture of a person on the ground with a sad face and a person in a plane waving and smiling.

I said, “I see two people in this picture.”

Colin said, “This is me and this is my daddy flying for his job.”

I said, “You wish he was here, don’t you? I do, too.”

Colin curled in my lap and started crying. I let him cry and held him.

I said, “It feels miserable, I bet.”

After a bit he brightened and he said, “I like going to the park with my dad and riding on his shoulders.”

I said, “That sounds like a lot of fun. You could draw that, too. I am going to draw a picture of what I liked to do with my dad.”

We compared pictures afterward. He laughed at the way I drew my dog.



After arriving, Andrew washed his hands and began frantically looking for something. He was looking for his dad. He began crying.

I said, “You are running around with tears in your eyes.”

He said to me, “I wanted to say goodbye.”

I said, “You didn’t see your dad leave, huh?”

“I’d feel a bit disappointed.”

“Well. It is snack time next. We have a telephone, you know, we might try to call him.”



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