I often think about my work, trying to extract from every kid coaching session the exact formula of what is working with my young clients. In my work as a life coach for young people, I think that life coaching for children has taken me the most time to understand and develop. I took a few things for granted, and they always came to bite my back. Mindsets such as, “I am the adult”, “they need a good talk”, “they are being influenced by friends” or, my absolute worst: “I get them.”

Rubbish, all of them! After many years, I have found that the most important thing parenting classes must teach adults is listening to children. What they need is attentive listening, trust, as well as an authentic relationship.

It didn’t take me long to realize that my being the adult is actually part of the problem. They feel that most of the adults around their life are against them (teachers, police, trainers, or strict parents).

 Thus, they don’t need a good talk. In fact, what they need is somebody to listen to them. Yes, they are indeed being influenced by their friends, but that is a crucial part of social learning for them! Especially if they feel their parents (or adults) are not listening to them. 

This is not one of your parenting classes. As a professional life coach for kids, my focus is on child development, not their parents. But, parents can’t help their kids if they don’t develop themselves too. Do you get the twist? Don’t worry, I am rambling again.

So, obviously, I didn’t “get them” because I was being the adult and I wasn’t listening to them.

Does it sound obvious? Well, I can tell you that when you have a young person who refuses to go to school, suffering exam nerves, or self-harming in front of you, that’s when you will desperately search for the magic formula to solve it as soon as possible. Then, you suddenly realize there is no such thing as quick solutions. Using feedback to motivate children is important. However, it needs to go hand in hand with attentive listening.

attentive listening

Let me share this real-life coaching for children case example. I am going to call this girl Sonia, obviously not her real name. Sonia is a teenager who is doing well in school. In fact, she is doing very well academically. Her family is nurturing and caring. However, Sonia is showing signs of anxiety in teens. The first change that happened was her sleep. She struggles to fall asleep, resulting in her being tired and clingy the next day. The next was that she stopped sharing as much as she used to do. 

attentive listening

She talks to her parents and tells them that she is worried—thank goodness for that—but she can’t really identify why. Her parents try to understand, thinking that it was all about exam nerves, they take the approach of taking all focus away from exams. However, that doesn’t seem to work. Her sleep was still bad, and it’s now clearly affecting her and the family. Her behaviour was mostly good, but she was clearly tense and not being her normal charming self. As a life coach for kids and as a parent I would not wait for things to get so bad before trying to act. Brings us back to the point where parents should consider taking parenting classes.

As assessment week approaches her parents up their game, distracting her from exams with fun activities and revision or exam conversations are almost banned from the house to take all pressure away.

Nothing seems to change, Sonia’s parents were responding, but not attentively listening to Sonia.

When I met her professionally for a life coaching for children session, Sonia was quiet, answering as little as possible. Also, while she was polite the most common line she used was “I don’t know” and all possible variations of it (I am not sure, I think so, maybe, it could be) or simply nod.

So, how do I go about it? Recall I told you teenagers don’t want to be talked to but listened to? However, Sonia was not talking. How can I listen to her?

A key part of my work as a life coach for kids is to create moments of connection. Sometimes they give it to me, sometimes, many times, in fact, I must create them.

The first step I had to do was to build trust and mutual confidence. You probably thought that since I knew her, this was already there, right? Well, it wasn’t. When exploring difficult situations, the young person needs to feel trusted and this is a completely new game for the adult. We can’t take any previous relationship, even as a parent, for granted. When coaching kids, we must work on building a sacred space of mutual trust.

The way I do this is by mixing a combination of life coaching for children experience and showing examples of trust. Firstly, I shared with Sonia as much as I could from my life as a teenager, situations I have experienced professionally as a life coach for kids and so on. My aim was to go to her world, to fish around until I can find a line of connection. Humour and fun activities seemed to help distract her from the fact that we were having a coaching session.

I told her about my fears when I was her age. How I felt I wasn’t a good student. About my fears when my daughters were growing up—should I tell them I wasn’t a good student? Should I hide it? Fundamentally, I was sharing my fears. I was sharing myself with her.

attentive listening

As she felt more comfortable, I shared more of my professional, personal and family life. She started talking a bit more.

In case you are wondering, yes, it feels vulnerable. But how can you expect her to open up (a massive act of vulnerability) if I am not willing to demonstrate the same?

During our kid coaching talks, I ensured I set the fundamental mark of trust: respect. I mentioned how I wasn’t there to tell her what to do (how can I tell her if I barely know what’s happening in her life). Told her how I would respect every decision she made, even if it was not coming back to see me. I never challenged any question she had, any observation or idea. I took them all at face value.

Another important part of the kids coaching process was that I virtually ignored the reason for our sessions. Of course, it was parked in my mind, not forgotten, but I made a very precise attempt to avoid it until she brought it up.

Finally, I always ensure I bring humour into our conversations. The first thing we lose is our sense of humour. So, laughing becomes tremendously healing and a great relationship builder. What is important is that I was the butt of the joke. I related those experiences to myself and made a comedy of my experiences.

What Sonia was perceiving was a person who is honest with her and attentively listening. In case you are wondering, yes, it feels vulnerable. But how can you expect her to open up (a massive act of vulnerability) if I am not willing to demonstrate the same?

Why attentive listening is important for parenting and life coaching for children

Over the course of a few kids coaching sessions, Sonia started to feel more relaxed in our meetings, shared more about her school life, her concerns (remember, I didn’t bring up the topic, she did). During those chats, she displayed a pattern that we call, “them – us”. A lot of her talk was very generic about her classmates (them) and very specific about her two friends (us). This raised my curiosity, and I asked her more about her friends.

attentive listening

Here is the summary: Sonia knows that she does very well academically. Her two closest friends are also doing very well. She felt they had that in common while most of the other kids in her class were doing ok but less well than the three of them. What caught my attention was how, when talking about her two best friends, Sonia said: “they are very smart”. Simple yet powerful statement.

Why did this statement catch my attention? Any parent can overlook this. However, from my experiences as a life coach for kids, I could read between the lines. Well, she talked about them being smart. She didn’t talk about the three of them being smart.

Now, there are many possibilities but I like to think only two strong options.

  1. It could be out of modesty: I am smart but I am not going to say it.
  2. Comparison: They are smart but I have to work my backside to reach the same levels. Maybe I am not as smart.

I made the assumption that the second option could be the true one and asked her.

Me: What do you mean by “they” are smart?

Sonia: Well, they get very good grades. I do well as well but they are very smart

Me: And the rest of the class?

Sonia: They do ok… Well, a few of them don’t but most do ok

Me: But not as well as you three?

Sonia: No, we are normally the ones with the best scores

So here is my assumption: Sonia has created a strong bonding with those two girls based on their academic performance. She hasn’t expressed any other point of strong connection between them. I am sure there are other areas they all enjoy. However, what brings them together and differentiates them from the rest of their class is their scores.

One thing I find time and time again is that poorly based ideas take place in our brain and, despite everything telling us they are false, we repeat them to ourselves as a mantra until we believe them. The more we do it, the more we believe them.

Leveraging on my experience as a life coach for kids, I felt it was time to take my chances. I wanted her to check some of those beliefs she had expressed. Rather than “telling her, I opted for a tiny humorous but provocative approach.

Belief one: they are smart vs they are hard-working people just like me.

Me: But I guess they are naturally smart, they don’t work at all and get all those great results. I mean, I am sure they are heading to Nobel prize or something like that.

Sonia: Well, they are smart but we work together a lot and they do work hard. I sometimes work harder than them.

Belief two: Without the good results, they will realize I am not smart, they won’t be my friends

Me: And, of course, if you were not to get good results you will have no friends (in a joking tone)

Sonia: Yes, I guess they will still be my friends. We like the same music and the same movies. We do a lot of sleepovers together.

Belief three: I don’t have any other friends

Me: I can imagine how scary it might feel if you think you don’t know anybody else in your class

Sonia: Yes. It feels very lonely. 

Me: And all the other girls?

Sonia: They are nice. We sometimes play together or go to activities together.

From here, the conversation took on a much deeper level, helping Sonia express those beliefs she was holding, sometimes by herself, sometimes with some suggestion.

The moment Sonia expressed those beliefs (fears), she could easily see how they were not real, just like exam nerves. She had friends. Not only those two friends, but a lot of the other kids in the class were also nice to her and she knew them well. In fact, she was interacting with them a lot of times. 

When I saw her two weeks later she said: “I am sleeping much better now. I am a bit worried about the exams but not too much. I think I will do well.” She also related how she had been on an activity camp with some of her other friends and they had a lovely time together climbing, hiking, etc. In fact, she was the most talkative I ever saw her.

Now I want to summarise this case so you can take home a few ideas. Call it lessons from parenting classes and you won’t be wrong.

How do we help children with exam nerves, or, in fact, with any type of anxiety?

  • Don’t give them the talk. Listen to them
  • Acknowledge and respect their fears. They are true for them
  • Don’t rush. Allow time and space for them to talk when they are ready
  • Give them the chance to express their worries. When they do, don’t challenge/stigmatize/ignore them. Respect those emotions and give the young person enough support so they can eventually challenge those beliefs themselves
  • They will share with you as much as you are willing to share with them.

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