As a psychologist, I see children of all ages—and their parents—in my office. I also live with my husband and our two children. The most common “complaint” I receive both at home and at work is that no one listens. Kids, mine included, routinely report that parents and siblings never listen to them, and that no one cares what they have to say. Similarly, parents, myself included from time to time, often feel their children have an in-one-ear-and-out-the-other approach to communication.
So how do we break this cycle within our families? You can help your kids open their ears and start to truly hear what you’re saying with these simple yet powerful tips:
1. Tell Your Child What You Expect of Him or Her: Avoid confusion by sticking with one request, consider the situation, and TELL your child what you expect following these steps.
Avoid confusion by keeping requests simple and specific: Instead of listing three or four things that need to be done, stick with one short request. Once your child follows through, you can move to the next item on the to-do list.
Size up the situation: Adjust your expectations if you or your child are tired, hungry or stressed. Your child will be harder to motivate and you may not have the stamina to calmly follow through. Don’t sweat it, just meet your child closer to the middle and don’t judge yourself.
Remember, TELL (don’t ask) your child what you expect: Many times kids need to do stuff they don’t want to. If you present a question or option your child will hear it as a choice. You’ll be frustrated and they’ll be confused. Keep things clear by saying, “It’s time to take a bath.” instead of, “Do you want to take a bath?”
Make it a game or a challenge: Younger children love games and older kids are motivated by challenges. Keep it fun by making requests like, “How fast do you think you can get dressed? Quick, I’ll time you!” or, “It’s time to put your toys away. Do you think you can do it by the time I’m done with my shower? Let’s race!”
Cut yourself some slack! If you’re having a hard time simplifying your requests or if your best efforts are still met with maddening push back or the sound of crickets chirping, hang in there!
2. Lock Eyes: Shouting from room to room happens, but making eye contact helps kids focus on your message (and saves your vocal cords, a win-win).
Out of sight, out of mind! When your child’s eyes are locked with yours, they will be less likely to ignore or forget your request. Even if they like what you’re saying, it’s easier to let it roll in one ear and out the other if you’re out of sight.
Volume control. Pumping up the volume is probably not a daily goal in most households. If you can’t see your child, chances are you will raise your voice to be heard. Sensitive kids may perceive this as being “yelled at.” Plus, if this is the standard, then your child may have a hard time “hearing” you when you’re not being loud. Starting off eye- to-eye will help with volume control, spare your vocal cords and get your child used to responding to a normal tone of voice.
Seeing is believing. Possibly the biggest benefit of having your child in sight when you present a request is seeing their reaction. If you’re yelling from room to room, you can’t read your child’s body language or see if they’re following through. When you are face-to-face, you can immediately gauge your child’s response. This gives you a huge advantage since you can trouble-shoot in the moment and quickly move things toward follow-through.
3. Lower Your Voice: When voices are raised, kids shut their ears. When you whisper, their ears open up (even if they don’t want to hear what you’re saying).
When things are loud, people (kids included) cover and protect their ears. This reaction is even stronger if the loud thing is perceived as being unpleasant (such as a parental request to clean up, get up or get going in a new direction).
When a message is presented quietly, people (again, kids included) lean in to hear what’s being said. Not only that, but their eyes widen and they begin to devote a lot of effort and energy to hearing what’s being said.
When you’re tempted to raise your voice, try this new approach:
- Have a clear message prepared (short and sweet);
- Have your child in view; then
- QUIETLY present your request.
4. Say Please: Keep in mind, kindness matters, and a well-intentioned “please” will go a long way. Plus, you’re modeling the good manners you want your kids to use.
Why is this important? Because you are always in the spotlight (no matter how old your child is, and even when it seems like they are ignoring you). Saying please and communicating with kindness is important because your child learns far more from copying what you do than anything else. If you want the respect that you deserve as a parent, set the bar high and dish out that same level of respect when you speak to your child.
Does it really help? Yes! A single, well intentioned “please” will go a long way in opening your child’s ears and getting your message across. The follow-up “thank you” when they do what you’ve asked is an added bonus. These small efforts will set you and your child up for success and keep everyone focused on the goal.
Can I be polite without being a push-over? Absolutely! This is a skill every parent needs to practice, because being polite, kind and respectful has nothing to do with being a push-over. Setting limits and boundaries is important, and delivering well thought-out natural consequences helps kids learn important real-world lessons. Doing this with respect takes practice, but it makes all the difference in the world.
In the long run, you want to be your child’s go-to person, a trusted source of guidance and support, and an emotional safety net as they practice coping on their own. Showing kindness and respect—even as you parent through the challenging times—sets the stage for a life-long connection that will last far longer than any day-to-day squabble.
5. Give Your Vote of Confidence: Let your child know that you trust him or her to follow through (even if you’re not necessarily convinced yet).
Kids know things are better when parents are happy (as opposed to upset and disappointed). You can turn this fact of life into a powerful parenting tool simply by stating that you trust your child will do what you asked. This creates a huge incentive because it’s no longer just about ‘take the garbage out,’ ‘do your homework,’ ‘brush your teeth,’ or ‘keep your hands off your brother’…it’s about ‘mom or dad is trusting me to follow through.’
Case in point: You say, “Please do your homework.” If your child does not follow through, they just didn’t do their homework. You say, “Please do your homework. I’m trusting you to make a wise choice.” If your child does not follow through, they didn’t do the homework AND they broke your trust.
At the end of the day, your child is probably much more invested in maintaining your trust than actually doing many of the things you’ll ask. So, start to communicate that you trust your child to follow through, choose wisely and make things happen. In no time you’ll notice more listening and less push-back.
Stephanie O’Leary, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist specializing in neuropsychology, and a mom of two. She provides parents with a no-nonsense approach to navigating the daily grind while preparing their child for the challenges they’ll face in the real world. Visit stephanieoleary.com.