by Cady Andersson

In every relationship people seek to be understood. It is one of our greatest desires. In every healthy relationship people seek to understand and be understood – preferably more of the former than the latter. Remember how curiosity is your friend? When you are listening reflectively (a concept from the client-centered therapy method developed by psychologist Carl Rogers), you are seeking primarily to understand the speaker. This involves (first) listening to the speaker in an attempt to understand and (then) restating what the speaker has said in order to clarify and reflect back the speaker’s thoughts and feelings. In and of itself, this method of listening is fundamental in healthy and happy relationships. When used with children, however, it has several added benefits.

A Life-Changing Experience

First, reflective listening makes the child feel safe, heard, and loved. When you repeat back to a child what has been said to you, the child feels acknowledged, something many adults forget is a basic need for these tiny humans we are lucky enough to love and help raise.

Is there any greater gift we can receive than to feel like someone has truly heard us and understands us? It reminds us that we are not alone. It reminds us that no matter how hard life is, someone is in our corner. What a wonderful legacy to leave for the children in your life – that you are on their team, that even when you disagree with the child’s choice you will seek to understand why the child chose it. What a wildly life-changing, world-rocking experience! If everyone could learn this listening skill, we could solve many (if not all!) of humanity’s most persistent problems.

Compassionate Childcare

Modeling Appropriate Grammar

Another added benefit is that reflective listening allows you, as the caregiver, to model appropriate grammar without seeming to correct. We use this tactic as teachers all the time: 

“Her won’t give it to me.” 

“She won’t give it to you?” 

“No, she won’t. I wants it back.” 

“She won’t give it to you and you want it back! That makes sense!” 

Since children are casually learning literally everything there is to learn about life, it’s easy to accidentally harm their positive self-image by continually correcting them. As a caregiver, you know it’s part of your sacred duty to somehow impart all of your wisdom and leave the children in your care with a positive sense of self. What a daunting task! Luckily, children are little sponges who learn by what you model to them, which is both intimidating and empowering. This leaves you with a great ability to redirect children solely with your own behavior and without the use of criticism or continual correction. 

Many children have developmentally age-appropriate speech struggles with specific sounds. If you take them to a speech pathologist for an evaluation (which I absolutely, unequivocally encourage you to consider if you or your child’s physician or teacher is concerned), the pathologist might tell you that your child’s speech is age appropriate and will resolve itself. In fact, at age four your child may mispronounce as many as half of their sounds, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The way these sounds resolve themselves (besides additional muscular development and strengthening) is repetition of sounds and speech from the surrounding adults and peers.

Teachers often slow down their speech and use reflective listening as a way to instruct without correcting. When you use reflective listening continually with children, not only do they feel cared for and attended to, they are learning proper grammar and proper pronunciation, as well as learning how to reflectively listen themselves. Don’t we all want to spend our time with children who listen well? (Oh, do we ever!) Isn’t listening well the number one thing that parents tell their children before they leave them with a caregiver or a grandparent or a teacher? “Be a good listener today!”

Intentional Listening 

How else do children learn to be a good listener besides observing how others listen to them? Are you setting down what you are doing to listen to your child? Are you closing your book or turning your phone face down? Are you making eye contact? Are you listening actively for feelings and thoughts? Are you reflecting back what you think you heard (“It sounds like you are feeling like your teacher didn’t treat you fairly…”)? Are you listening solely for the sake of understanding another human better? Honestly, no one can listen like that 100% of the time, so if you haven’t or are condemning yourself right now, please know that you are in there with all the rest of us. There is no need to feel shame about this. Redirect any discomfort you may be feeling at this moment to inspire you to listen with greater intentionality and presence to your loved ones – little and large alike.

Developing Emotional Literacy 

Reflective listening helps the speaker to have their thoughts clarified by the listener. Anyone who has swum around with my thoughts knows that adults need assistance clarifying their thoughts sometimes too. How much more important is it to help children (or teenagers) to refine their thoughts and feelings? Oftentimes children lack the vocabulary to describe or identify what they are feeling. Reflective listening promotes emotional literacy. Without an adult to assist in identifying feelings it is as if we are asking children to speak to us in a language they have not yet learned. Luckily, emotional literacy can be taught in the same manner as foreign languages – through observation, modeling, and repeated discussion with others.

Quieting Emotional Storms 

Reflective listening also helps in quieting the emotional storms in others. I will never forget when I learned about this skill in an early course during my teacher training. I was eager to try it out (and perhaps somewhat skeptical). At the time I was working as a nanny to help pay for graduate courses. The two children I was working with at the time were delightful and I adored them. No matter how delightful they were, though, they were still human children, which means the full gamut of human emotions is part of the package and one had serious separation anxiety. His mom would leave and he would be devastated, sometimes crying for as much as 30 minutes after the ritual began with his mother’s goodbye (even though he was excited to see me when I walked in the door every day). The morning after I learned this new technique began the same way. His mom left and he began his morning bout of sobbing. But this time I knelt down to his level and looked him directly in the eyes, reflected his feeling in my own facial expression, and said “You are so sad. You miss your mom. You really wanted her to stay.” 

Instantly he stopped crying and looked at me! A light breeze could have knocked me over! We had been doing this same song and dance for several months, and the change I wanted in his behavior at that moment (and for several months earlier) required that I verbally acknowledge his feelings only once to totally, instantly calm him? Luckily, I had been trained as an actor during my first four years in college, so my face read “Totally Cool” instead of “Totally Shocked.” His face calmed as he quietly replied, “Yeah…” and then ran off to play with his sister. That was all he needed – that I let him know I understood what he was feeling and why he was feeling that way.

Since that day I have used this wonderfully easy technique to listen to adults and children alike. It works for both – especially with adults for whom you would like to have compassion but perhaps do not. Reflective listening is used everyday in the classrooms and homes I serve in, and in my own personal life.

It’s a powerful tool. Pass it on!

Photo courtesy of Gustavo Fring from