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The Empathizing Ordeal of helping Foster Youth feel Known with Reflective Listening

Updated: Jun 24

Young man and foster father sitting on a couch, body language open. The young man is sharing something, gesturing with open hands, while the foster father practices reflective listening.

In the moment, it can be hard to talk to a youth when challenging behaviors come up. You might not know what to say, or what to say next. If an example comes to mind as you read this, maybe it’s a conversation you know you’ll have to circle back around to sooner or later and you’re gathering ideas for how to handle it.

Two very important things to have in your tool kit when a youth is unregulated and spinning out are reflective listening and reassurance.

Why are these important? Because trying to reason with or relate your own experiences to a dysregulated youth is like talking to a wall. Higher brain functions have been switched off as they sink into the “fight, flight, or freeze” response that lives down closer to the brain stem. Empathy strategies help sooth and meet the needs of being heard and understood, allowing higher brain functions to come back online. (For a more visual explanation of how this works, check out Dr. Dan Siegel's Hand Model of the Brain and the concept of “flipping their lids.”)

What is Reflective Listening?

The first tool is not responding to what the youth is saying, but sincerely reflecting back what they’re telling you. Or what you think they’re telling you, because no one’s perfect! Guessing wrong can help the youth clarify what they actually meant along open lines of communication and be even more validating when you indicate that you do understand.

Some ideas for sentence starters to get you going are:

  • “It sounds like…”

    • “’re afraid that…”

    • “ want…”

    • “’re frustrated that…”

  • “It seems like…”

  • “So from your point of view it’s…”

  • “You believe…”

  • “What I guess you’re feeling is…”

It doesn’t all have to be repeating things back. Sometimes it’s enough to imagine being in their shoes and giving voice to some of the feelings you imagine might be coming up, gently making those suggestions in a way that allows the youth to either correct or build upon that. Try to keep things light, tentative, and validating, inviting them to open up and tell you more. You want to sound like you’re guessing, not like you already know. Because what if you don’t?

When you practice reflective listening, there are three levels on which you may choose to reflect: content, feeling, and need.

Infographic - What is Reflective Listening? Paraphrasing or repeating back what you just heard the youth say either using your own words or the youth's words. Example: "I hate my teacher at school. She's mean and she always yells at me." Content response: "You really don't like your teacher because she yells at you a lot." Feeling response: "It makes you feel upset and angry when it seems like your teacher is mean and yelling at you." Need response: "You don't feel supported by your teacher."

On the content level, you bounce back what they’re saying. At its most basic, you’re summarizing what they’re giving you and asking if you got that right. This demonstrates that you’re paying attention, and even if you don’t hit the nail on the head you’re still showing a willingness to understand.

On the feeling (or emotions) level, you use reflecting to invite the youth to make their thoughts more concrete. You are offering to explore what they are feeling with them, not guiding the conversation or trying to diagnose. When someone understands why they’re feeling or thinking the way they are, there’s greater potential to find solutions and acceptance.

On the need (or meaning) level, you distill meaning from their venting and body language. You are expressing concepts that are probably on the tip of their tongue but they don’t really understand them yet. Talking through it and expressing themselves helps them learn things about themselves and their emotions that they might not have known before the conversation, as well as identify how to meet the need that was going unmet.

Above all else, remember that reflective listening is mostly about listening. You’re not agreeing or disagreeing, not offering advice or trying to get the youth to look at things a different way. Keep sight of what’s right in front of you.

Benefits of Reflective Listening

This should be obvious but, again, the number one goal of reflective listening is listening. And not just doing it, but showing it! Demonstrating that you’re really paying attention and not just going through the motions will go a long way towards both helping the youth back down from a dysregulated state and strengthening the connection between the two of you.

It can also be a source of empowerment. Foster youth often have so little control over their lives, it’s important that they get to be experts when it comes to their own thoughts and feelings.

Even if they might not be making a lot of sense, they’re still the expert! Reflecting back to them (either literally or paraphrased) can help the youth clarify or edit what they’re saying to be more in line with what they’re trying to express. This can be especially helpful for youth with lagging skills in communication like finding the words they need or saying what they’re thinking, what they need, what’s bothering them, what they’re feeling, etc..

Even if they go on the attack, they’re still the expert! In those cases, you actually want to avoid repeating back the exact words, especially if it’s threatening or really hurtful. That language is coming from a lag in skills, perhaps social thinking skills (understanding what others mean from the way they behave or talk, getting other people’s attention in positive ways, etc.) or emotional- or self-regulation skills (handing feelings when stirred up, thinking about what might happen before doing something, waiting for something they want, etc.). Instead, summarize back either their feelings (e.g. “You seem really angry right now”) or the deeper meaning of what it seems like they’re saying.

Infographic - Benefits of Reflective Listening. Demonstrates that you are listening, which helps with youth regulation and connection. Gives the youth a chance to correct your understanding of their words or meaning, and to clarify their thoughts and feelings. Encourages open communication and validating the youth's feelings.

Whatever the underlying problem is, something is getting hard for them and they may fall back on behavior that has worked for them in the past, but creates a challenge for you as a foster parent. To balance out whatever lagging skills are in play, it’s best to stay curious, not furious. If you feel like you’re beginning to get dysregulated yourself, breathing and mindfulness techniques might help in the moment. Or you can step away, allow both of you some space to calm down, and try again later.

It can also help (again, both of you!) to practice in lower-stakes situations. Next time the youth says something to you while calm, reflect it back and see if you can get a feel for it, see how they react and what they seem to respond well to. The more you practice reflective listening, the more you model that positive behavior for them.

How to Show You’re Listening

We’ve gone over verbal communication pretty thoroughly so far, so let’s talk paraverbal and nonverbal communication.

Paraverbal communication isn’t what you say, it’s how you say it. Keep in mind your…

  • Tone (calm, open, gentle, not monotone)

  • Pitch (not high and agitated or booming and aggressive)

  • Pacing (not rushed, which can signal anxiety or discomfort, or abrupt, which can signal defensiveness)

Depending on your youth’s social thinking skills and how they may or may not lag when their lid is flipped, they might not pick up on all of these. It’s still important to model good communication any way you can!

Infographic - How to Show You're Listening. Frequent eye contact. Engaged and open body language. Avoid outside distractions. Show curiosity and interest.

Nonverbal communication is what’s happening with your body throughout the conversation. It’s facial expressions, eye contact, gestures, touch, posture, and distance between you and the youth.

Part of “be curious, not furious” is giving that curiosity center stage both verbally and nonverbally. You want to make it very clear that you are seeking to understand their perspective, so let’s start with an obvious way to show that: make eye contact. Your mileage may vary depending on how comfortable your youth is with direct eye contact, but this generally shows that you’re engaged in what they’re saying. It also keeps your eyes on their face, watching for cues in their expression that they either don’t want or don’t know how to voice.

What your body does is important too. When your attitude and body language is one of relaxed curiosity, you have a little more grace for any missteps you make in the conversation. The more closed off or rigid you look compared to how you’re trying to sound, you’re more likely to come across as either insincere… or sincere, but conflicted, which can be a distraction from what the youth is trying to express.

One last thing: some body language signals are learned socially. Unlike instinctive signals, these come from the people and culture around us. This means that some gestures (and even the use of space and touch) can be a speed bump to clear communication if they mean different things across different cultures. So keep your youth’s culture in mind, as well as what their baseline relaxed body language looks like compared to how they behave when stressed or dysregulated. That way, you can better spot potential pain points in the conversation.

Offering Reassurance

Being dysregulated can stir up all kinds of emotions and worries. Especially if they’ve experienced a caregiver’s frustration or disappointment in response to their behavior in the past! Sometimes they can even get defensive or escalated if they don’t know what’s going on for themselves, or are having trouble voicing it.

Speaking to the spoken or underlying concerns a youth might have can be very calming and help a youth back to being regulated again.

Some ideas for how to sprinkle these in amidst your reflecting and gently clarifying questions this are:

  • “I want to understand…”

    • “ you’re thinking about…”

    • “ you’re feeling about…”

  • “I’m sure there’s a good reason…”

  • “You’re not in trouble.”

  • “I’m here to help you work through this.”

  • “It’s okay not to know.”

    • “... Take the time you need.”

    • “... You can think about it.”

    • “... We can come back to this later.”

This isn’t the same thing as telling the youth everything’s going to be okay. It’s not about minimizing the issue. It’s about making sure they know that they can work through this difficult conversation without judgment. Basically, it’s a promise about the only thing you can really control in that moment: your reactions.

Reassurance can take a lot of different forms. It can also be as simple as a touch (if appropriate), or matching their tone and energy level to show that you’re meeting them where they’re at.

Foster father, seated on the floor, with an upset foster daughter sitting on her bed and covering her face with her hands. His hands are resting reassuringly on her knees as he leans forward with a sympathetic expression.

Reflective listening and offering reassurance are two powerful tools that can help the brain calm down. We use both often in the Collaborative Problem Solving® approach and Plan B conversations, but on their own they’re good empathy strategies that can guide a youth back towards regulation. For a good example of these tools in action, watch this clip from the movie Inside Out (2015).

Bottom line: the more comfortable and understood the youth feels, the more trust they’ll have in you and the better they’ll feel throughout the time they spend in your home.

Learning More

GOBHI foster parents have access to a wealth of resources on this topic and more. Current foster parents can access a recording of the session in the shared resources drive under “Recorded Power Hours.” For more on this topic, check out the May 2024 recording in the same folder.

For those of you who aren’t foster parents but are interested in beginning that journey, let us know! Begin your application for full-time or respite care today, join an upcoming Information Session, reach out by email, or call (541) 256-4587.


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