Kids have a lot on their minds, from the history test to the soccer tryouts to the newest computer game. Parents can be dismally low on their list. Not to mention that when the brain is rewiring at age six, and again at age twelve, kids often feel overwhelmed by outside stimuli and tune you out. Even toddlers are very busy, since their job description is exploring (aka tearing your house apart.)
So kids have other things to think about. They also have different priorities, and they don't understand at all why it's so important to take their bath right this minute!
Of course, the parents who ask me how to get their child to listen aren't really talking about listening. They're talking about how to get their child to take in what they say--and take action! And yes, there are some tricks to make that more likely. Here's how.
1. Don't start talking until you have your child's attention.
Connect BEFORE you start speaking. That means you can't bark orders from across the room and expect to get through.
Instead, move in close. Get down on your child's level and touch him lightly. Observe what he's doing and connect with him by making a comment about it: "Wow, look at that train go!" Brain research has found that when we feel connected to another person, we're more open to their influence, so by connecting first, you're making it easy for him to listen to you. But you aren't manipulating, you're acknowledging, and respecting, what's important to him.
Wait until he looks up. Look him in the eye. Then start talking. If he doesn't look up, make sure you have his attention by asking "Can I tell you something?" When he looks up, then start talking.
(Don't be surprised when your child begins using this technique to get your attention before he tells you something. And if you want him to keep listening, you'll need to listen back!)
2. Don't repeat yourself.
If you've asked once and not gotten a response, don't just repeat yourself. You don't have your child's attention. Go back to Step One, above.
3. Use fewer words.
Most of us dilute our message and lose our child's attention by using too many words. Use as few words as possible when you give instructions.
4. See it from his point of view.
If you were busy with something you liked doing and your partner ordered you to stop doing it and do something else that was not a priority to you, how would you feel? Might you tune out your partner? Your child doesn't have to share your priorities, he just has to accommodate your needs. And you don't have to share his priorities, but it will help immensely if you can acknowledge how much he wants to keep doing whatever he's doing.
"I know it's hard to stop playing, Honey. You're really enjoying that, and I can see why! And now I need you to....."
5. Engage cooperation.
No one wants to listen to someone who's giving orders; in fact, it always stimulates resistance. Think about how you feel when someone orders you around. Do you cooperate enthusiastically?
Instead, keep your tone warm. When possible, give choices.
"It's bath time, Sweetie. Do you want to go now or in five minutes? Ok, five minutes with no fuss? Let's shake on it." If you really need it done NOW, phrase it as a command, but keep the warmth and empathy: "We agreed to go inside in five minutes, and it has been five minutes. I know, you wish you could stay outside and play all night. When you grow up, I bet you'll play all night every night! Now, it's time to go in. Let's go."
6. Stay calm.
When we get upset, kids feel unsafe and go into fight or flight. In their effort to defend themselves or to fight back, they become LESS effective at listening, and lose sight of our message. If your priority is getting everyone in the car, don't waste time and energy lecturing them about why they didn't listen to you and get ready when you first asked. That will just make everyone more upset, including you. Take a deep breath, help her find her shoe and help him on with his backpack. Once you're in the car, you can ask them to help you brainstorm ways to get everyone out of the house on time next time. (Hint: That conversation will be more productive if you focus on solutions, not blame.)
7. Set up routines.
Most of parents' communication to kids consists of nagging. No wonder children don't listen. The solution? Routines, so there are fewer opportunities for power struggles and less need for you to be a drill sergeant. Routines are just regular habits, like what the kids do before they leave the house (brush teeth, use toilet, pack backpack, put on shoes, etc.) If you take photos of your child doing these tasks and put them onto a small poster, your child will learn them over time. Put her in charge of what she needs to do. She'll have a new skill and your role will be limited to asking questions:
"What else do you have to do before you leave the house? Let's check your schedule."
If you stare at your screen while your child tells you about his day, you're role modeling how communication is handled in your family. If you really want your child to listen to you, stop what you're doing and listen. It only takes a few minutes. Start this when he's a preschooler and he'll still be willing to talk to you when he's a teenager. You'll be so glad you did.
9. Watch for understanding.
Most of the time when kids don't "listen" they just haven't tuned in to us. But if your child repeatedly seems unable to process your instructions, she may have an auditory processing disorder. Adopt the tips above and experiment with giving your child multi-step instructions. If you're concerned, consult with your pediatrician for referral to an audiologist.
10. Pare down your orders to what's really non-negotiable.
If you worked for someone who constantly badgered you with orders, would you feel like cooperating? You don't want every interaction with your child to be an order. So maximize the loving, happy interactions, and minimize the orders.
11. Invite cooperation by being playful.
"Kids not listening / not responding / not complying is like my parenting kryptonite. I can keep my cool in the face of many things but this is the hardest. I inadvertently discovered this week that my kids are much better at doing what I want them to when I use a hand puppet to ask them to do it. At first I was like WHAT IS THIS MAGIC but reading this article I can see that the puppet is much better than I am at a lot of these things - connecting before speaking, staying calm, engaging cooperation... basically, I should just take parenting lessons from my own hand puppet!" - Robin M.
You'll notice that these tips can all be boiled down to three things:
- Calm yourself.
- Engage cooperation with empathy.
These are the basics of communication, and work when you need to get cooperation from someone of any age. So why do we forget them when we interact with children? Because we think (at least unconsciously) that children should simply do what we say when we say it. But kids are humans, and humans don't like to be ordered around. You'll always get better cooperation when you connect before you direct!