The Science Behind Listening in the Home

Mother listening to son

Active listening serves many purposes. It is how we connect and enjoy others. It is a means to share information for making decisions and solving problems. It’s how we build unity and trust and strengthen our relationships. It’s a way of increasing motivation and personal empowerment. It’s also a way to promote deeper personal growth. In this article, I want to talk about what we can learn from science about listening at home.

Key to Emotional Self-Regulation

Science on the family informs us that listening is a primary skill to help kids become emotionally mature. (See Paul A. Graziano, “The Role of Emotional Regulation in Children’s Early Academic Success,” Journal of School Psychology, February, 2007). By listening at home, parents help their children learn to identify and understand their inner world of thoughts and feelings. This emotional literacy is not innate. It has to be taught. Kids who don’t learn this are more inclined to act out, give in to peer pressure, or get depressed. Research shows that kids who are taught to understand and deal with their emotions are more self-confident, better performers at school, and have healthier social relationships. They learn this through healthy interactions with their parents, particularly as parents use the skill of listening.

I liken the use of listening to creating a fertile soil that permits a tiny seed to develop into a lovely flower. The soil enables the seed to become the flower by releasing its capacity to grow, even though the capacity is within the seed. By creating safe and trusting conditions through listening, you unleash the capacity of a child to grow. Of course, you can’t grow for the child. You only create the conditions so that a child comes to believe in herself, understand her inner world, develop trust in others, find motivation and the courage to open up to the world and engage in a process of exploration and mastery.

Long-Term Study

John Gottman, well-known for his research on both marriage and parenting, conducted a long-term study of 120 families. They followed these families for 20 years, from when the kids were young, until after they had left home, observing and interviewing them at regular intervals. The researchers found that in the most successful families, parents did five things when their kids were upset.

  1. They paid attention to their children’s emotions (instead of ignoring them or telling them they shouldn’t feel that way).
  2. They recognized emotions as opportunity for closeness. Usually parents want to distance when their kids are expressing strong feelings but these parents moved towards instead of away.
  3. They listened empathically and validated their children’s feelings rather than telling them were wrong for how they felt. These parents acknowledged their feelings and the legitimacy of these feelings.
  4. They helped their children name their emotions. There’s a saying in psychology. If you can name it, you can tame it. These parents want their kids to not only be aware that they were feeling something but to be able to distinguish between different emotional states. Kids begin to develop emotional literacy when parents teach them to use feeling words like “hurt,” “sad,” “frustrated,” afraid,” “lonely,” “anxious” and so on. You teach this as you’re listening to your kids talk about their frustrating experiences.
  5. If necessary, they set limits while helping their kids solve their own problems. Step five means that the process does not always end with listening. Sometimes we move into setting limits, teaching our kids what is acceptable or not acceptable behavior, or helping them figure out solutions to their problems.


Being attuned to your kids so you can support them when they have problems is at the heart of what I’m talking about. Of course, you don’t only talk to your kids when they’re having troubles. It’s helpful to be curious and involved and invite them to talk about whatever’s going on, the good and bad—school, sports, friends, their successes, as well as drugs, suicide, sex, etc. The more openly your kids will talk to you, the more positive influence you have, the healthier they may become and the stronger your relationship becomes.

And I want to suggest that even though not as deep or personal, you can learn to apply this same knowledge and skill on the job. The best leaders and bosses pay attention to the emotions of their employees. They listen to their employees and allow them to share ideas (like my story of Mitchell) and also talk about things that are troubling to them (like Bob). Making it safe for employees to talk builds your relationship, gets needed information into the open, and allows you to solve problems before they become too big.


It’s often hard to listen to our children, especially when they’re upset. But my hope is that the five steps will give you a structure to make it easier, doable to listen at home.


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