Listening to Your Child Even When They Can't Use Their Voice

 Image of Kirstie Rees and her book
By Kirstie Rees, author of The Mental Health and Wellbeing of Children and Young People with Learning Difficulties 

What do we mean by ‘children’s voice’?

If we are to actively listen to what children are telling us, we need to think about what we mean by ‘children's voice'.  In our culture, we place a lot of value on the words someone uses. But so much of how we communicate is through our gestures, facial expressions and behaviours – especially when we are struggling. This is even more the case for children. Children find it even harder than we do, as adults, to make sense of their thoughts and feelings, and to understand (and articulate) how these influence their behaviours. If you have ever asked a child  to ‘use their words’,  or ‘why they did something?’ it may have had the opposite effect of what you hoped for. It is likely that they will have said less, rather than more.

Children are dependent upon adults to support them to make choices, which places us in a position of power. Even when we are keen to help, we may inadvertently influence their responses, or presume what they are trying to communicate. It can be easy to jump in and offer solutions - or to tell a child what to do. This means that we don’t take time to interpret and respond to their communication attempts. It also makes it difficult for children to generate their own solutions.

What about neurodivergent children, and children with learning disabilities?

Children who are neurodivergent or who have learning disabilities, face more barriers being heard. They often find it challenging to process oral language and to understand abstract concepts. They may be unable to talk about events outside of  their immediate environment or to describe something that has happened. They may also lack ‘metacognitive skills’ – the ability to reflect upon and consider their own thoughts and thinking. Children with significant learning disabilities are also more likely to use ‘atypical’ means of communicating – such as moving different parts of their body, or by crying or vocalizing – which can be easily misinterpreted or misunderstood.

How can we be good listeners?

The following strategies will help you to actively listen to a child’s voice.

  • Focus on the relationship

Making sense of what a child or young person is telling us takes time - and requires you to get alongside the child. Relationship is key here. Get to know the child - so that you have a clear idea of their likes and dislikes, and the things that engage them. How do they communicate when they are coping well, versus when they are struggling? How can you find out more about them from others who know them well? Having an in-depth knowledge of the child makes it easier to work out what their words and behaviours mean.

  • Take time to make sense of behaviours

Move beyond what the child is saying, to what they are doing.  Remember, all behaviour is communication – and how a child behaves tells us a lot about what they are feeling, even if they can’t let us know using words, and can’t make sense of it themselves. Think about a child you know well. What are they telling you when they get out of their seat and leave the room, or rip up their painting just after you have told them how good it is?  If you are supporting children with learning disabilities, one behaviour may mean two or three different things (e.g. they may rock in their chair when they are stressed but also when they are excited). This  means that we need to consider the impact of where they are, who they are with, and what they are doing, when we are trying to interpret their behaviours.

  • Validate their feelings

When we are feeling upset, we are not usually seeking immediate solutions, just the opportunity to be heard. The same is true for children. When they talk to us or open up, it is important to actively listen - using your eyes and ears and whole body – and to validate their feelings. You can do this by commenting on what you see, or by paraphrasing back to them what they have said.

E.g. ‘It’s clear you are feeling anxious right now because of all that is happening at home.’ 

Phrasing it as a question allows you to check with the child that you have interpreted their words correctly:

‘So, you say you are feeling a bit fed up at the moment?’’

Listen out for ‘exceptions’ too – the people, places or things that make them feel better. As they are talking, do they mention times when they feel they belong, or things that they like doing?

‘You said that you feel better when you talk to your friend/take your dog for a walk /listen to your music?’

By highlighting these back to the child, you can support them to develop their own coping strategies. This helps to build their resilience.

  • Be creative

Use diverse and creative ways of listening to a child based on their level of understanding, and their motivators. This makes it easier to identify when they are struggling, and how to respond in a way that meets their needs. Importantly, this enables you to build up an understanding of their voice over time.

Read more about The Mental Health and Wellbeing of Children and Young People with Learning Difficulties.