Compassionate listening with a purpose

We have entered year three of the COVID-19 pandemic. I feel as if I’m in a marathon, and I don’t know how many miles are left. My toes are numb, I’m developing blisters, and it’s starting to get dark. Will I make it to the finish line? Is there a finish line? This could be a dream, a nightmare or maybe it is the mundane reality of how my anxiety and stress abide in the age of COVID.

What I hear from youth is some of the same—they are tired, stressed, hurting, anxious and mostly they are grieving the loss of relationships, a way of being in the world and the life they once lived. I think this grief and anxiety often manifest as disordered eating, depression, self- harming and compulsive behaviors or addictions.

What can we do when our teenager is suffering and feeling untethered? How can we show up in a way that supports them and nurtures ourselves?

I think the anxious and grieving young person wants nothing more than an open-hearted listener. The one thing I hear repeatedly is a desire that parents listen to them—only listen. That might seem like a tall order when we, too, are feeling anxious and strained.

The practices that help me quiet my mind and body are useful when I need to be an active and engaged listener. I try to limit caffeine. I engage in outdoor activities and spiritual practices that help me feel connected to something outside myself. I practice conscious breathing, yoga and my musical instrument, too. Anything that helps me focus my attention and increase my awareness helps me show up in a grounded way for myself, my family, clients and friends.

I close with words from the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, from his book How to Love: “In the practice of compassionate listening, you listen with only one purpose: to give the other person a chance to speak out and suffer less.”

As always, his simple wisdom delivers a clear message about the healing power of loving presence and attention.

Ann Strickland is a counselor with Bainbridge Youth Services.