I remember a night several years ago when my boys were young. It was late in the evening, well after our nightly bedtime routine of bathtime and books. I was in my own bed, on the edge of sleep when I heard a commotion from down the hall. Feeling irritated, I got out of bed to go investigate (It’s well known in my family that waking me up can come with less than pleasant consequences). It didn’t help my mood when I reached the boys’ bedrooms and was met with 2 giggling children. My impulse was to express my frustration and disappointment and get everyone back in their rooms, but I took a beat and instead asked what was going on. My oldest son shared that my youngest son had been “scared” by something and he thought it would be better to “handle” the situation himself rather than wake me (admittedly understandable). In this moment I was very glad that I had contained my frustration and exercised “compassionate curiosity” rather than jumping to my own conclusions about what was going on.
What is “Compassionate Curiosity”
Compassionate Curiosity is the intentional practice of acting as a non-judgmental investigator in order to better understand a person’s point of view or actions. Exercising Compassionate Curiosity shows your child that you’re trying to better connect with them and understand their experiences through their eyes. It limits reflexively assigning meaning to their actions and intentions. Research has shown curiosity to be associated with higher levels of positive emotions, lower levels of anxiety, healthier relational attachment, and overall greater psychological well-being.
The Keys To Using Compassionate Curiosity:
1) Withhold Judgment & Ask Questions
When we are curious, we admit we don’t know the answer but we are open to all possibilities. Rather than attempting to “fill in the holes” with your own assumptions, recognize that you may not actually know what the thoughts or motives of your child are in a given moment. Give them space to share their thought process with you directly by asking questions in an open-minded way. For example, rather than saying “Why are you avoiding your Saturday morning chores” try “Are you doing okay” or “Is there something keeping you from getting started this morning?”
2) Listen & Observe
Often, a child’s need is to be heard in and of itself, rather than to have a problem solved for them (we often work through our problems through verbal processing). Kids may not always be able to answer questions clearly or even understand their own motives. But you can gather clues by listening with your full attention and observing nonverbal cues. By giving your child space to think through their thinking, you are providing an opportunity for exploration and building their confidence in their communication skills.
3) Put Yourself In Your Child’s Shoes
Empathic listening means, “I can understand your understanding” (even if I don’t necessarily agree with it). Try to imagine the feelings that certain experiences or tasks might evoke and what behaviors might reflect those feelings. Reflect back to when you were your child’s age and how you felt in similar circumstances. When a child is having their first experiences with love, betrayal, and unfairness (creating strong emotions) express empathy.
4) Plan For Ongoing Check-Ins
Emotional or personal conversations can be uncomfortable for some people. But if we as parents avoid uncomfortable conversations, our kids with do the same, potentially creating bigger problems down the road. Revisit previous conversations periodically to show that you are open and available for continued conversation, recognize growth, and ensure that your child’s needs haven’t changed.
By practicing compassionate curiosity with your child, you are recognizing them as a whole person, letting them know you want to collaborate to understand and solve problems.