Kids’ Big Fears, Part II

The next important component of showing genuine interest is practicing all the non-verbal skills associated with truly listening.

Everything matters, from simple smiling (or other appropriate facial reactions) to eye contact and nodding, to body position, gestures, and haptics (physical contact).

Examples of effective non-verbal communication–each of which contributes to listening without judgment–include:

• Leaning in toward the person to whom we are listening

• Nodding slightly to acknowledge we have heard what the person is saying

• Lowering our head and gaze when hearing something difficult

• Putting a comforting hand on the other person’s shoulder or upper-back

• Matching the gait and speed of the person we’re walking with

• Avoiding glances at clocks, watches, or other people

• Avoiding interruptions, especially to talk about ourself or an association we just had.

Consider, too, how to respond. When children are dealing with sensitive issues such as their fears, they may simply want to be heard and have their feelings validated. Turning a listening session into a problem-solving session will not necessarily meet children’s needs.

Teach staff members to say things like, “That sounds hard” or “I know that’s a struggle” or “You’re describing a real challenge.”

That brand of genuine empathy is not only a wonderful prelude to a deeper conversation but also sometimes the only thing a person needs to hear to feel better.

If young people are looking for help solving a problem, they will ask for it or otherwise lead the conversation in that direction. When we learn to stop after empathic statements such as those above, we are truly listening. We can support and validate another person’s feelings and share our common humanity.

Finally, staff members also need to develop comfort with conversational silence. When a child says something that is intense or moving, most people will feel uncomfortable. However, when a profound comment is made, both the speaker and the listener have an opportunity to reflect.

Rather than allow staff to blurt out a series of awkward verbal attempts designed to diminish this discomfort, teach the members to resist their instinct to fill the silence. Silence creates room for children to experience their feelings.

Remaining Patient

Part of a practical approach to supporting kids coping with the fear of death is to create an environment of acceptance. One of the most important aspects of that environment is patience, and being patient is not always easy.

Real patience, especially in the face of others’ challenging behavior, is grounded in one simple truth: Every action has a cause.

If we can teach staff members to accept and understand that every behavioral choice has a reason behind it, then we are well on our way to teaching real patience. Being patient–even if we cannot readily identify or understand the reasons–will help cultivate an environment of acceptance.

In staff-training workshops, we often remind members that all behavior makes sense to the actor. That alone helps cultivate patience, as do the simple strategies of slowing down one’s breathing, reflecting before talking, consulting with a colleague, using time off wisely, eating and sleeping well, and–for some staff members–nurturing the spiritual side.

There is no way to maintain perfect equilibrium when faced with something scary, including death. There are, however, practices that allow the staff and campers to experience fear without decompensating.

These practices are based on the simple notion that kids need to feel accepted and understood. Showing genuine interest, listening without judgment, and remaining patient are all effective ways to promote this understanding.

Sidestepping Favoritism

To truly establish an environment of acceptance, we also have to confront favoritism. Favoritism erodes acceptance.

When staff members play favorites, children feel excluded.

However, staff members are done a disservice if they are told, “We don’t have favorites at camp.” That is simply not true. It is natural and should be expected that we will be a better match with some kids than with others. We will like some kids better.

The important part about understanding favoritism is not denying its existence, but recognizing and naming the feeling when we do feel more positively toward certain people. Then, we must have the courage and sophistication to change any behaviors based on that feeling.

From simple choices like where we sit at meals to more challenging behaviors like engaging individuals in conflict, our actions are the key here. A youth-development professional understands the distinction between having favorites, which is normal, and playing favorites, which is socially corrosive.

The staff’s commitment to dealing honestly with favoritism will have a direct impact on whether kids feel accepted and safe at your camp.

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Related posts:

  1. Kids’ Big Fears: Part I
  2. Sensitive Subject
  3. Am I Oversharing?
  4. Reevaluating the Camp, Part 2
  5. Universal Vulnerabilities
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