OPINION | Active listening is a skill all parents can work on

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HAGÅTÑA — Thirteen-year-old Susan came to the nurse’s office and handed me a note from her teacher. Susan had been sleeping in class.

I looked at Susan. Immediately she said, “Yes Miss, I have been sleeping in class because I have been staying up waiting for my mom to come home. I wanted to make sure she was safe. She has been coming home at 2 a.m. I only had about three or four hours sleep this week.”

Susan’s grandmother lives with them. Her 16-year-old brother hangs out with his friends. Her father is on military deployment; he has been away for six years and she does not know when he is coming back. Her older sister had also left for military deployment. I noticed she had deep marks on her right arm.

I asked Susan about the marks on her arm. She told me that this started two years ago. When she gets lonely and depressed, she slashes and nicks herself with a sharp object. In the beginning, it was one way to numb her pain, it escalated and now she hopes that she will pass out and never wake up. She misses her dad enormously but has not heard a word from him. Her best friend relocated to the mainland. They have been good friends since first grade. She is the only one that understands her.

I asked Susan if she had spoken to her mother about her feelings of dejection and wanting to die. She tried talking to her twice before but her mother would not listen. She got upset and yelled at her, telling her to stop seeking attention. Her mom would then make it up to her by buying her gifts. She told her mom all she wants is love and care.

Last week Susan wrote her mother a message to please come home earlier so that she could sleep earlier. Her mom got agitated and told her that she is working hard to pay the bills and provide for them. Her dad will never come home. Lastly, she told Susan to stop waiting up for her.

"Your grandmother is here to watch you and your brother," she said. "I am making ends meet."

Susan was crying as she told me that it would be better for her to die. Maybe her mom would not have to work so hard if she was gone. Her dad is gone, her sister is gone, her brother is barely at home, her grandmother does not care for her and her best friend relocated. She has no one. She feels alone, hopeless and rejected.

I asked Susan if it would be all right for me to talk to her mom. She was reluctant at first, then finally said it would be all right. I kept Susan back with me until her mother came. I explained to her mom what was going on with Susan. Her mother explained her financial woes. She admitted that she has neglected her daughter. She did not realize the intensity of the pain that Susan was going through. Susan’s mother asked Susan for forgiveness and they embraced each other.

The principal, school counselor and myself teamed up to help Susan. Susan went to therapy and attended the Rainbows for All Children program to help her heal.

She went to the program until she was in high school. Now Susan is a lawyer, is married with children and has relocated to the mainland. Her mother lives with her family and helps her with the grandchildren.

Listening to our children is a huge task for all parents.

Tips on actively listening to your children:

  • Stop everything; focus on them with eye contact. Listen without interrupting.
  • Communicate by repeating what was shared. This gives them a reassurance that parents are listening wholeheartedly.
  • Clarify what they shared with you; make sure that you are both on the same page.
  • Take your children’s concerns seriously. Be open-minded, see how they will manage their fears and worries. Assist them through their life’s journey.
  • Promise your unconditional devotion and never put down their trepidations and alarms.
  • Never talk to them about your economic woes. If you have adult problems, talk to an adult friend that you trust to confide your troubles, please do not lash out at your children.
  • Above all, show empathy, compassion, care and positivity. Always be encouraging and uplifting.

Marie Virata Halloran is executive director of Rainbows for All Children Guam/LifeWorks Guam.

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