The bucolic hamlet of Lititz in Lancaster County is an unlikely site for a double murder. That’s where 18-year-old David Ludwig is accused of murdering the parents of his 14-year-old girlfriend, Kara Beth Borden, after the two had stayed out all night.
While the mantra of many mental-health professionals is “parental involvement,” these parents seemed to have had that covered. They provided structure and values in a lovely area.
Nevertheless, the children had very secret lives.
Children will always hold secrets from their parents, as well they should. It’s part of forming their identity. But if parents can help create a safe, open environment – where problems and emotions can be shared – children will likely understand which secrets are all right and which are dangerous.
I don’t know what kind of communication the Lititz families had. Nor do I know if honest discussion could have prevented this horror.
But I do know children shut down when parental involvement is driven by anxiety. Parents who push children to achieve or who impose rigid values often do so to assuage their own fear rather than meet their children’s needs. And sometimes they do it from anxiety over their children’s ability to care for themselves.
Such was the case with my daughter Alison when she was in fourth grade. After school one day, she told me that a girl on the bus had been bullying her. As a concerned parent, I jumped into action and notified the bus service, the principal, and the child’s parents.
The next day my daughter was furious at me for embarrassing her. She said she wanted to try to handle it herself, but now she couldn’t. “I’ll never tell you anything like that again,” she said. It may have looked like parental involvement, but it was really parental anxiety and it shut down communication.
I have given several lectures titled “How to Listen So Children Will Speak.” It’s the quality of our listening that creates a safe environment, not the quality of our speech.
Ideally, careful listening begins in early childhood. Yours! So by the time you become parents, you will have had the experience of being heard. And if not, you are at least able to understand and acknowledge your own emotions. If I understood and tolerated my anxiety when my daughter told me of her problems, I wouldn’t have reacted so quickly without asking her what she wanted.
Often our children will test our ability to listen with a trial balloon; they will confide that their friend has tried pot or become sexually active. And then they wait. If we react with anger or launch into a lecture, they’ll shut up. Who would feel safe to share secrets with someone like that? Would you?
Here’s how to listen so children will speak. Before you talk, check in with yourself and see how you feel. Anxiety, exhaustion, external stress, and even physical hunger can harm your ability to hear. You cannot hear someone’s heart unless you first hear your own.
Trust that whatever you think you must say can wait – if not a couple of hours, then at least until your child is done talking.
And listen. Listen to the words, to your reaction to the words, and to the person who is speaking the words. Ask yourself what they are feeling as they speak. And, finally, try to hear the message. There is always a message, and if you can’t hear it, then you are missing a critical part.
Another important component is asking the right questions. It’s just fine to say: “I feel angry or confused or helpless about what you just said. What would you like of me?” And then listen some more.
I learned from the mistake I made with Alison. Her sister, Debbie, was 15 years old when our family broke up. She started to cry when I asked how her life had changed. She told me how empty her life felt and how she no longer looked forward to her future. She felt very alone.
Any parent knows how painful those words can be coming from a child. I wanted to say a thousand things to make her feel better. But I sat quietly and held her hand, and we both cried. I knew that anything I said would have deepened her loneliness. Silent listening was painful for me, but it was just what she needed.