African Amercan father giving a stern talking to his son

How to Talk to Kids So They Will Listen

Published February 3, 2020

How much time do you spend talking to a wall? If you’re like most parents, your kids just ignore you no matter how many times you repeat yourself.

Many parents struggle to get their kids to do anything without threatening, yelling, even hitting. We’re here to tell you there’s an easier, more effective way.

Listening is a learned behavior, one you can teach if you take the time. Follow these tips, and your children will learn how to listen and how to express themselves to others effectively.

Be playful

Joanna Faber, co-author of How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2-7, says that being playful is the quickest strategy a parent can use to get your child to do something. For example, instead of demanding your little one to wear their shoes or else, make it a game. You can put your hand inside the shoes and say, “I feel so empty and cold. Can someone stick a warm foot inside me so I can get warm?”

Your child will be excited to wear their shoes, and you will both have fun.

father playing with daughter being playful

Give choices instead of commands

Human beings are born with the need to express their freedom. When you order your child to do something, they feel you are taking their control away. Their natural, intuitive response is defiance. Over time, this type of interaction can become a learned behavior, making communication and compromise nearly impossible as your child grows older. Conversely, your child’s intuitive response to options is to make a choice and stick with it.

For instance, instead of saying, ‘hurry up and get to the car.’

You can try, ‘do you want to hop like a kangaroo to the car or chase me down?’

Giving children clear options and empowering them to choose not only helps get tasks completed tear-free, it helps children learn compromise and accountability.

Use positive language

“Stop running inside.”

“Don’t drop that glass.”

“Don’t drag your sweater on the floor.”

Do any of these actually work? No.

As parents, we use negative phrases that all the time. Negative words don’t work. Instead of achieving what you want, they drive children to do the opposite, often because young kids simply can’t figure out what action they should take instead. They get scared and freeze.

Instead, use positive language that is clear to understand.

“Only walking inside.”

“Hold onto that glass, please.”

“Lift up the sweater, sweetie.”

Clear and definite language leaves no room for confusion about what you want your child to do.

Connect with your child

When you shout commands from the other room, don’t be surprised when no one hears you. After all, if it’s not important enough to get your attention, it’s not important enough to get your child’s attention either.

Connecting with your child is key to getting them to listen. Move to where they are and make eye contact to ensure their focus. If your child is particularly jittery, try using touch by holding their hand or rubbing their back for extra support.

Once you have your kiddo’s full attention, speak to them in a calm assertive voice. Don’t shout, threaten, or yell. Use a few clear words to express what you want and then ask them to repeat what you said. If they can’t repeat what you said, use simpler terms until they get you.

Asian mom lying in bed talking with son Indianapolis AMA

Show them the benefit of following directions

Remember, “because I said so”? Did it work when your parents said it to you? Did it make you excited to cooperate? Or did hearing this instead of a clear explanation make you feel powerless, unimportant, and confused?

Children are perpetual learners. They need to be able to make sense of the world. When you tell your child to put on a sweater or brush their teeth, they may not understand why they need to. You will get more cooperation, and you will reward their natural desire to learn if you can make them realize the benefit of following your directions.

For example, instead of, “get dressed,” you can say, “get dressed so you can go out with daddy.”

Instead of, “do your homework,” try, “please finish your homework so we can watch TV.”

Using words like when and so that naturally signals to children that listening gives them something to look forward to.

Keep it simple and direct

Children have trouble organizing too many instructions. If you tell your child to feed the cat, clean their room, and take a bath, they will probably only take a bath. If you want to communicate effectively, give kids one directive at a time. Ask them to clean their room, and wait until that is done to give more instructions.

When talking to your child, it’s essential to watch their facial cues. You can tell by their expression if they understand you. If all you see is a blank stare, use simpler words, calm your voice, and reduce the number of words you use. You can also supplement your words with visual cues.

Your relationship matters

You don’t want to be your child’s friend instead of their parent, of course. But parent-child is a special type of relationship, and it takes work to keep it strong just like any other. Building your relationship with your child is the best way to make sure your kids always listen to you.

You can build a strong relationship with your child over the years by taking time to listen to them, doing fun activities together, and sharing your own thoughts and dreams. Keep judgment to yourself and seek to understand their point of view even when it doesn’t make sense.

When you set an example as an active and understanding parent, your children will learn to do the same.

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