Listening to children: practice pointers from an expert

Listen Like a Lawyer welcomes guest blogger Karen Worthington, a writer, consultant and children’s policy attorney.

Writer, consultant, and children's policy attorney Karen Worthington
Karen Worthington

A recent verbal exchange with my five-year-old ended like this:

Impatient mother: “We are going to be late for practice. I told you three times to pack your snack and water. Didn’t you hear me?”

Unflappable daughter: “I heard you, I just didn’t listen.”

My daughter’s statement both captures why miscommunication is so frequent in our lives and illustrates a key difference in how young children and adults communicate. Young children live in a world of concrete concepts. To them, to “hear” is to know there is a sound going on around them. To “listen” is to accept and process information that is being conveyed to them. Listening and hearing are two distinct actions and listening is not always a subset of hearing.

Truly listening to children is one of two things attorneys must do to effectively work with child clients. The other is understanding child development. Although child development is not a class found in any law school, lawyers working with children and families cannot effectively communicate with or build a case involving a child without understanding where that child is developmentally and how that impacts the issues in the case.

What is a child?

In the legal world, a child is a person who is not yet a legal adult. For most purposes, the age of adulthood is eighteen, which means that a “child” could be seven days or seventeen years old. Because of the wide range of developmental and chronological ages and abilities falling under the legal umbrella of “child,” when discussing how to work with children it is helpful to group children by developmental ability.

The developmental stages of childhood are generally categorized as infancy, toddlerhood, early childhood (ages 3-6), middle childhood (ages 7-11) and adolescence. While the exact ages and stages may vary among developmental experts, the fact remains that the skills and approach needed to listen to a child vary according to the child’s developmental age and stage. Each stage includes social, emotional, cognitive, motor and other changes that affect how a child interacts with (i.e. communicates with) his or her world. Furthermore, developmental theory provides only a framework for working with children. Each child is unique, developmental stages are not linear, and a child’s cognitive abilities may be affected by trauma, fear, hunger, excitement, tiredness, medications, hormonal changes, the setting in which the conversation takes place, and many other factors.

How to listen to children

As with any other client (and perhaps more so than most clients), attorneys need to spend time with and get to know their child clients. Listening to your child client in different settings at different times will teach you how to best communicate with that child. A preverbal infant is just as capable of carrying on a conversation as a 15-year-old, if you know how to “speak” and “listen” in the infant’s “language.” Following this post is a list of resources to help lawyers communicate with children of different ages.

There are some general guidelines that apply across the stages of childhood. First, establishing rapport with a child is essential in a way that it is not with adults. Most of the time, adult clients seek your services because they want your help with a problem and they understand the attorney-client relationship. In contrast, most child clients encounter you because of bad things that have happened in their lives and almost always, they did not seek you out–you were assigned to work with them by some other adult. Even when you represent youth accused of breaking the law, which is most analogous to a situation in which you would encounter an adult client, the youth’s perception of your role is not likely to be similar to an adult’s perception of it.

Connect with children

Rapport is essential because broadly speaking, young children will want to be agreeable and please you and adolescents are likely to distrust you. Therefore, young children need to be comfortable enough with you to disagree or correct you rather than always giving the answer they think you want to hear. Older youth will need to be comfortable enough to share relevant information with you and not just tell you what they think you would want to or should know. All ages need to feel comfortable enough with you to share information they may feel is embarrassing or shameful.

Understand the child in context

A second general guideline is to speak the child’s “language.” Learning the child’s language comes in part from understanding child development (such as when children can understand abstract concepts, compound sentences, time, space and size comparisons, etc.) and in part from understanding the world in which the child lives–physically, culturally, socially and emotionally.

To understand a child in the context of her environment you need to see the child in her home or school and you probably need to observe interactions with important people such as parents, siblings or peers. You also need to be able to talk about what is important to the child. If you work with tweens and adolescents, read some magazines targeted to that age group, find out what music is popular with the teen and his friends and listen to it. Know something about what the youth is interested in, whether it is college basketball, pro football, the latest dance craze or the newest viral video. You probably can’t bill for watching music videos, but the improved ability to relate to your client is a huge payoff.

Don’t just talk; do something

A third general guideline applicable to most youth is to interact with them rather than interrogate them. Instead of a traditional one-on-one conversation which, for lawyers, often includes a desk and taking notes, it is best to engage in an activity with a child. For young children that might be coloring or playing with trucks or dolls, for older youth it might be playing a card game that doesn’t require much concentration, swinging at the park or walking around the neighborhood.

Having something to focus on other than an adult asking questions tends to make a child more comfortable. For many children, the only time they sit and talk to an adult without doing something else is when they are in trouble. Because of the setting in which you talk with a child, you may not be able to take notes, so you need finely honed listening skills.

Be honest; be real

A fourth general guideline is to be genuine and keep your word. Children have a sixth sense for insincerity and a finely attuned BS-o-meter. Develop rapport but still be yourself. Maintain boundaries. You are the responsible adult in a relationship where there is a power imbalance. You are their lawyer not their friend. Don’t overpromise and always follow up. Be clear and do what you say you will. Most of the time children have lawyers because other adults have failed them. Do not be another adult who lets them down.

Listen with your heart as well as your ears

A final piece of advice is be prepared to be surprised. When we allow ourselves to listen to children, we are likely to be surprised by their wisdom. Children’s insights and observation can be biting in their honesty. Appreciate the profundity in simple statements such as “I heard you but I didn’t listen to you.”

Resources

Click on the resource title to open the URL.

ABA training video, “Interviewing the Child Client: Approaches and Techniques for a Successful Interview 

ABA Center on Children and the Law

CASA of Arizona online training segment, “Interviewing Children”

National CASA article excerpt, “Interviewing Children” (PDF)

NJDC training module “Talking to Teens in the Justice System: Strategies for Interviewing Adolescent Defendants, Witnesses, and Victims”

“Handbook on Questioning Children: A Linguistic Perspective, 3rd Edition,” by Anne Graffam Walker, et al, published by the ABA Center on Children and the Law (July 2013)

Author bio

Karen Worthington is a writer, consultant and children’s policy attorney who has spent the last 19 years working to improve children’s lives as a policy wonk, educator, author, child law and policy center director, nonprofit leader, legislative advocate and children’s law expert. Her consulting website is http://www.karenworthington.com and her writing website is http://www.lightningboltwriting.com.

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