How can I get my kids to “listen”?!

This is one of the most frequent questions I am asked in my parent coaching practice.  After ruling out a true hearing issue, I often remind parents of the saying, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.”

When parents say that they would like their kids to be better “listeners,” often, what they really mean is that they would like their kids to cooperate; to reply with a simple, “Ok, Mom/Dad” after a request of them is made. I let parents know that this goal is attainable, so long as they are willing to adopt a more positive mindset to achieve it.  Among other things, this mindset involves viewing the parent-child relationship as one based in mutual respect and understanding what underlies behavior.

Long gone are the days of the “children are to be seen and not heard” mentality.  Modern parents are beginning to realize that this generation of kids is more sophisticated (think about how well a 2 year old can navigate an electronic device) and have strong voices of their own.  Rather than attempting to quiet these voices (and behaviors), through punishment (including yelling and nagging), it is important that parents really start to listen themselves, to the underlying messages that children use to communicate, namely through their behavior and actions.

According to Rudolf Dreikurs, MD and Alfred Adler, MD, two prominent psychiatrists who studied human behavior and children extensively, children have basic needs they are trying to get met.  They have the need to feel valuable and significant, powerful and capable, to experiment and explore and to feel love and give love.  Ultimately, kids are always searching for a sense of belonging and significance.  They long to feel a sense of connection and a sense that they are worthwhile to those around them.  When children feel their needs are being met, they feel loved and valued. Kids will seek ways of getting these needs met in either appropriate or inappropriate ways; whatever works and whatever we’ve trained them to do.  For example, let’s say you take your young child to the store and she begins to whine and cry because she wants that shiny toy on the shelf.  You respond with a “No,” which was the opposite response your child wanted to hear. So, based on previous experience, she proceeds to respond with a louder and more demanding request for that same shiny toy, given it worked in the past.

In moments like these, parents have a choice.  They can choose to get upset at the demand, insist that the child “stop whining,” ignore all requests or angrily give in as they wonder what others might be thinking and just want the behavior to stop.  Sound familiar?

Happy boy hugging his mother and smiling

Another, more positive and mindful approach to this behavior involves that of understanding that a misbehaving child is a discouraged child who is looking to get her needs met.  Instead of responding angrily (which only creates fear and resentment in the child), parents can take a deep breath and remind themselves that their child is not out to get them. When calm, they can attempt to convey an understanding of the child’s needs in a respectful way.  Otherwise known as being kind and firm at the same time.  This approach also relies on the use of emotion coaching – a way of educating children about their feelings by labeling them and accepting them for what they are – not right or wrong, simply part of being human.

To give an example, here is how that same parent could choose respond to her child’s “misbehavior”:

Child: “I want that toy!”

Parent: “Wow, sweetie, I see that you really want that toy and toys are not on my list for today.”

Child (getting angrier): But, I WANT it!

Parent (taking a deep breath and remaining calm):  “I know it can be really upsetting when mommy has to say no to something that you really want.  I would feel frustrated too.”

Child (softening after feeling acknowledged):  “Pleeeease mommy?”

Parent: “I know you feel disappointed and I understand.  Here, let’s find a piece of paper to write down your request so that I can remember it for a time when toys ARE on my list.  Want to help me write it?”

Child (realizing parent understands her feelings): “Ok.”

Certainly there are many other responses the child could have.  She could persist in making her request, hit or lash out at the mom etc.  However, what we know is that when children feel heard and acknowledged for what they are feeling, their need to misbehave greatly decreases.  Understanding brain development also informs us that so much of what children learn comes from what they observe.  When Mom was able to model calm behavior, the child’s mirror neurons (specialized neurons responsible for empathy and understanding of what another person is feeling) were activated and she was therefore able to “mirror back” the calm she was observing in and feeling from her mother.

When parents use traditional forms of punishment, such as time outs, yelling and taking away privileges, the child’s behavior may stop, but it’s typically only temporary and at a cost.  Namely, the parent-child connection is weakened.  A weak parent-child relationship does not bode well when one is looking to increase cooperation.

So, when wondering how you can increase the likelihood that your children will listen (i.e. cooperate), consider how you are delivering your message.  Are you barking demands and insisting that things get done how you want, when you want?  Or, are you realizing that children are people with feelings, agendas, wants and needs of their own?  If you want to be “listened to,” first, try listening to your child.

Consider asking for what you want versus telling what you want and empathize with the fact that it’s hard to stop doing an enjoyable activity, to hear the word “no” etc.

To assist, here are a few examples that are likely to increase your chances of hearing the words, “Ok Mom/Dad” as discussed earlier:

“What is your plan for cleaning up the toys?” vs. “Clean up your toys.”

“What is next in your bedtime/morning routine?” vs. “Go brush your teeth.”

“How can you and your brother find a solution to this problem?” vs. “Stop fighting.”

The goal in parenting should not be to win.  Ideally, the goal is to create a solid, respectful relationship with and connection to your child. This feeling of connection is what makes your child want to cooperate because he feels listened to and respected by those most important to him – his parents.