Listening Can Change a Child’s World

Adults showed me how the emotional, physical, or mental health problems they struggled with daily mostly had their roots in early childhood.

In a smacking debate in 2003, I found myself on the affirmative team to ban smacking. It was not my first choice, for I firmly believed that sometimes a smack can say a thousand words. What I had forgotten, however, was the fact that children’s bad behaviour often raises the alarm about something that is having a negative emotional impact on them, which is often the case when their parents’ marriage is in trouble.

It was a strange quirk of fate therefore, that one team member should suddenly become ill at the last minute, and I volunteered to prepare her argument since there was no one to take her place. I am grateful for that now, for it made me do extra research and think more carefully about the sort of behaviour that exasperates parents enough to cause them to lash out with a smack, and what might cause it.

From my studies in child psychology and years of teaching experience with children, I already understood that negative behaviour is usually a symptom of an underlying cause. And because children’s mental and emotional abilities are still developing, they need an adult’s help to identify and address problems as they arise. A difficult year seven class (eleven-year-olds) became my greatest teacher of this important fact, showing me how much children’s behaviour can change by listening to what they have to say.

When they couldn’t settle and focus on their work – even after the exercises and running we did each morning – I finally asked what was happening to upset them before they arrived at school. Gradually as I earned their trust, this is some of what I learned over several months:

  • A third of the 29 children were from broken homes where all but one said they were unhappy about how it affected them.
  • Name calling by a parent caused one girl to become sullen and withdrawn, and a boy to react by lashing out angrily at classmates.
  • High expectations from one father resulted in his son throwing books around in a tantrum when he didn’t get the top mark in tests.
  • One girl, whose stepfather taunted her about wearing a bra and constantly pulled the elastic at the back, repeatedly got out of her seat to hit and pinch the boys.
  • After a story-writing session, one girl shared how she cried herself to sleep every night because her father rarely allowed her to see her mother after a divorce. The father promptly transferred her to another school.
  • One boy scribbled “Eh…eh” all over his books and refused to do any work. His father had multiple sclerosis but would not let him help around the house, causing him to feel useless. His mother worked long hours and arrived home so late he didn’t see much of her. Talking about this brought tears to his eyes.

An inability to concentrate and low self-esteem were also indicators that I was only scratching the surface of the many problems my students brought to school, and sat with in silence each day.

In my later work as a counsellor, adults showed me how the emotional, physical, or mental health problems they struggled with daily, mostly had their roots in early childhood – either in the form of misguided or ignorant parenting, divorce, neglect, abandonment, rejection, domestic violence, and/or in physical, mental, emotional, or sexual abuse.

Many felt a deep sense of shame and believed they were ‘bad’ or that there was something seriously ‘wrong’ with them that they couldn’t ‘fix’. While some appeared outwardly successful, inside they struggled with self-doubt, anger, depression, anxiety, grief, sex addiction, romance addition, or a split psyche from sexual abuse.

If self-hate wasn’t a predominant feeling, many felt undeserving of love. Others stifled their anger. Often a trail of broken relationships and/or self-sabotage was common. One twenty-four-year old man wanted to fail his final year of a degree in architecture to get back at his parents for the years of physical and emotional abuse he suffered in silence.

In light of this, it was therefore a shock for me to finally understand that smacking and punishment are too often the quick fixes used when parents are stressed and/or don’t want to make time to identify and address the causes of their children’s misbehaviour. The saying I had adopted (probably from my own parents) that “a smack can say a thousand words,” suddenly sounded hollow and trite and uncaring. And dare I say, cold.

Children’s needs for quality time, love, sleep, nutrition, boundaries, or to be heard, are often not met, or worse, completely ignored. A relationship break-up and custody battle, where the acrimony between parents spills over the children, is a common cause for problem behaviour. It may also stem from abuse occurring outside the home – for instance, sexual abuse during sleepovers with friends and even grandparents is not uncommon. Bullying at school or rejection by friends can also cause bad behaviour. Sometimes a child will behave badly simply to get attention, figuring that negative attention is better than no attention at all.

Taking time to talk with a child and thinking things through to identify underlying causes of bad behaviour can create positive change, often strengthening the parent/child relationship in the process. When the cause of cause of bad behaviour is identified, the former smack once used to correct it then appears as a thoughtless act that does more harm than good.

This is what my year seven class taught me.

I could have repeatedly punished the boy who kept scribbling “Eh…eh” all over his books. When I first said that I wanted to talk with him, his eyes narrowed in hatred. By listening to what he had to say and making some suggestions about what he could do about his problem, the hatred vanished. He joined in class discussions. He began to read books and quickly becoming the most avid reader in the class. At the end of the year he surprised us all by topping some of the class tests.

Such is the power of listening. It shows a child you care by really hearing what they have to say, and taking affirmative action.

It can even save a life. At the very least it can help re-build their self-esteem.


A year or so ago a friend sent me a link to a song, How to Save a Life, by the Fray, which unfortunately has now been removed from the internet. Thankfully I copied down the words which flashed across the video while the song played…

Hold still
Let it go
Scared to death
Talk to someone
Release fear
Have faith
Open up
Say goodbye

The words to the first verse begin: Step one you say we need to talk…

Listening with love is the most powerful healer of bad feelings and bad behaviour I have ever experienced.

Oh…and my team won the debate.

You also might like to read:

How Children’s Self-esteem is Torn Apart
Treat Children with Respect
Make Mistakes. Lots of Them! And Learn.

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