Kitty Hagenbach on the importance of learning to listen

Kitty Hagenbach on the importance of learning to listen

A psychotherapist with over 30 years’ experience working with children and families, Kitty Hagenbach is a firm, kind voice. “Parenting won’t always be easy, it won’t always be smooth, but if we’re willing to really own the part we play, and we’re willing to learn more of who we are, then it’s a wonderful journey.”

Hagenbach launched a new podcast this year, How Not to F#*K Up Your Kids, hosted by Katie Goldsmith. The title calls to mind the first line of the Philip Larkin poem ‘This Be the Verse’ – “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” – which crawls into my head from time to time as I wonder how I’m inadvertently doing this to my children. Hagenbach has a brighter take on it. She describes the 10-part podcast as an invitation to enjoy parenting, which takes us from pre-conception to teenagehood. It is compulsive listening. “My heart’s desire is to work preventatively,” she says. “By teaching parents how to develop and maintain connected and respectful relationships with their children, I aim to prevent psychological and emotional difficulties in later life.” Surely, this is what we all want!

Communication is key and, of course, it’s not just about what we say. “Words are something like 7% of communication,” Hagenbach says. “The rest is tone of voice, body language, intention. Children are reading the whole parent – the whole energetic system – and they’re making causal maps. There is a sensitivity, an awareness and an intelligence in babies and children, and it’s helpful if we can learn to listen and respond to them.” This is ‘connected parenting’, which Hagenbach describes as “attuning to the child”. “If you can be present with the child and if you can listen well, the child will feel seen, feel heard, feel understood.”

I ask Hagenbach about effective communication with very young children. “The mistake we make with toddlers is we’re sometimes too intellectual and their intellectual brain is not developed yet. It’s important to be able to connect from your heart. Parents tend to be quite logical or to use long explanations. Young children don’t need long explanations; they’re not interested. They just want to have the connection. Get down to their level and meet them physically, and definitely meet them emotionally.”

Attuning to our children is important at all ages. “I work with a lot of teenagers,” Hagenbach says, “and the cry I hear is, ‘My parents don’t understand me.’ To listen is a real skill. When somebody says to you, ‘I’m really upset about X, Y and Z,’ it’s helpful if you then say, ‘OK, I hear you’re really upset about X, Y and Z, do you want to tell me more about that?’ If they do want to tell you, stay empathetic with them, rather than giving advice. Resilience will come when the children are upset about something, they’re heard in the upset, and they themselves fix it. You can say to your child, ‘Is there something you’d like me to do?’, but children of any age do not want to be lectured to and it’s not effective. It’s a respectful relationship and the listening is really important.”

One of the things Hagenbach comes back to again and again in helping us to be good (or good enough) parents is understanding ourselves.

“Research shows that when parents make sense of their own life and their own childhood and come to peace with it, children fare better. If I’ve made sense of my own history, I don’t need to get activated by my child’s behaviour, and I don’t need to get activated by my own unconscious memories. Each of us will find different stages of our child’s development tricky, according to what was going on for us. It helps if we can understand where we are intolerant and where we are overindulgent. It’s about first being curious and then being courageous – being willing to feel some difficult feelings and adjust how we are a bit.”

So, what are the best ways to make peace with our childhood? “It’s helpful, if you’re able, to say to your parents, ‘There are things I would like to talk to you about that I’d like to understand better.’ If they are willing, say, ‘I’d like to talk to you about how I felt when X happened.’ The parent might become very defensive, but I think if you can say, ‘I’m not blaming you. I’m trying to understand things. I know you did your best,’ then you can be owning what you’re asking. But some parents can become very prickly.”

Hagenbach was confronted by this reaction when she approached her mother to untangle feelings from her own childhood. “She immediately said, ‘After all I’ve done for you.’ She didn’t get it. But three years later, she said, ‘I’ve been thinking about what you said, and it must have been hard.’ That’s all I needed to hear. When you speak to your parents, you’re not only making cognitive sense for yourself, but you’re also speaking up for the child within you. That part of our psyche feels acknowledged, and that can be very healing.”

I ask Hagenbach about the ways our histories, if we don’t fully understand them, can impact our parenting day to day. She describes how a child might do something to trigger an unconscious memory. “Maybe they won’t cooperate, and sometimes parents can feel powerless. Powerlessness is a very early life issue. If a parent feels powerless, they may act aggressively, or they may retract. But go into what this might be about – so, now I have some memories coming up when this or that happened – address it there, rather than making the child wrong. Ask yourself, is your behaviour rational or irrational. If it’s irrational, it’s not about the child, it’s about us.”

It’s important in the moments when we are behaving irrationally to notice it, Hagenbach says. “Notice it, then name it: ‘I am in a bad mood. It’s not your responsibility. It’s not your fault. I need to go and have a cup of tea and I need you to go and look at a book or play outside.’ You’re not supposed to be a superhero and your children don’t want you to be a martyr. If you can be honest, the truth makes children feel safe. When you say, ‘This is how I’m feeling,’ and then you own it, it makes an extraordinary difference. Children think they’ve caused the problems, so it’s important to say to children if you’re upset, ‘This is not to do with you.’”

One of the pitfalls Hagenbach suggests we can avoid by delving into our own upbringings is ‘compensatory parenting’, where we parent in a way that addresses difficulties from our own childhoods. “I have two sons and when they were toddlers, I found it very hard to hold the boundaries,” she says. “The message came across as, ‘Darling, I really would rather you didn’t do that,’ whereas I thought I was saying absolutely no! But I had such strict boundaries as a child, it was too painful for me. I’ve had to learn that children need boundaries – they feel much safer when they know where they stand. Look into why you’re doing what you’re doing and for whom you are doing it. We wrap it up saying it’s for the children, but it’s not; often it’s for us.”

Hagenbach has a knack of coming out with confronting statements like this. Once I swallow them down, I find their clarity very helpful. On the one hand she’s acknowledging the challenge of parenting; on the other, she’s pulling us up to meet it. “Life is real and life is messy. People often try to be too perfect, and really it’s not possible. But it’s no good saying to the children, ‘I can’t do anything, I’m hopeless.’ You’re the parent; you’ve got to do it. But this is where you need some support.”

Support is the stand-out message I take from the podcast. “Parenting is a complex, difficult and wonderful job,” Hagenbach says, “but I don’t think we’re meant to parent entirely on our own 24–7. It is relentless and exhausting and we do need some resource for ourselves.” This is particularly true when difficult things happen. “It’s important for the parents to get help so the children don’t end up being the support system. It’s too much for them. It stunts them in their development and it’s difficult to overcome sometimes.” The message I’m hearing is put your own life jacket on first. The better resourced and supported we are, the more able we’ll be to support our children.

When we’re not resourced and supported as parents, we can be quick to feel stressed. I ask Hagenbach about the impact of parental stress on children. “If a parent is occasionally stressed, it’s not a problem – it’s continual stress. When we’re stressed, our nervous system is very activated, and when our nervous system is activated, our children’s nervous system gets activated. They’re reading through the parent whether they need to be on high alert and that will become a way of life for them – they will think the world is like that. The important thing is to speak to the children.” I wonder what the balance is between protecting our children from our troubles and being honest with them. “In general, it’s important to be more open than closed. Really difficult things happen in families, and I think it’s good to be real, but to do this without telling everything, which would be overwhelming for some.”

Hagenbach is clear that none of us is perfect – nor should we expect to be – but when we mess up, we should seek to make repair. She talks me through the stages. “The first thing is to create the space. ‘Can I speak to you now about something important?’ And if not, make a good time. Then you say what happened: ‘This, this and this happened, and I imagine that was a difficult feeling for you.’ And then you leave space for them to say whatever they want to say. However hard it is to hear it, just listen, don’t argue it out. Then you unequivocally apologise. And then you do it differently.”

There is huge scope in Hagenbach’s approach for personal growth, which I find reassuring. Next time Larkin’s words appear unbidden in my thoughts, I shall banish them. It is within us all to be the parents our children need us to be. She leaves me with some closing thoughts about parenting. “We don’t own our children. We guide them. We support them. We love them. Bring as much kindness as you can into it, hold very clear boundaries, and be interested in your children. They are fascinating, and completely unique.” 


Kitty Hagenbach’s podcast How Not to F#*k Up Your Kids: Parenting the Next Generation is available to listen to now. On Instagram @hownottofupyourkids

Alice Ellerby is sub-editor at JUNO.


Published in issue 86. Accurate at the time this issue went to print. 

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