One of the chief complaints I hear from parents is that their kids “don’t listen.” Parents often report feeling “disrespected” and are “tired of yelling.” Why is it that kids don’t listen? How can parents end the cycle of yelling, threats, bribes and other punishment?
Listening, like any other skill, takes practice and patience. Ultimately, children learn what we model. Kids listen when they feel listened to. Thus, it is crucial that parents take the time to really “tune in” to their child. This means demonstrating what listening looks like and, more importantly, what it FEELS like.
Think about a time you felt upset. Perhaps you had a bad day at work or were feeling stressed after your child’s third meltdown of the day. Now let’s say you went to a friend for support. Which response would you rather hear:
A) “Oh, get over it. It’s not that big of a deal. You should hear what happened to me today!”
B) “Wow, sounds like you had quite a day. I’m so sorry. Tell me more about it.”
As can be gathered, response A minimizes and dismisses feelings, whereas response B shows empathy and validation, with an invitation to elaborate on the experience. When your child is experiencing strong emotions (such as tantrums, talking back, yelling etc.), be aware that is your child’s way of sending you a message that he needs help understanding and managing his immense feelings.
All misbehavior is a communication. Because the rational part of a child’s brain is not yet fully developed, it’s unrealistic to expect her to process and manage such overwhelming emotions if we haven’t taught her how to do so. Children need our guidance, not punishment. Punishment derails the trust and connection we have with our child. While it may work in the short term as far as stopping a particular behavior, the long-term effects can be detrimental to a child’s sense of security and emotional well-being.
If you’re wondering how else you can foster more positive behavior in your child, consider these 6 gentle tips:
1. Take care of yourself – emotionally and physically. It begins with us. Get plenty of rest. Exercise. Build a support network of friends and family you can rely on.
2. Connect before you “correct.” Make sure you are in a calm state, and then get down on your child’s level. Gently put your hand on his/her back. Speak softly and slowly.
3. Use empathy and validate your child’s emotions. Your child is not out to get you. As discussed above, he needs help with his overwhelming emotions. When our child feels our understanding and acceptance of his feelings, he is in a better position to engage the more logical part of his brain and move toward problem solving.
4. Strive to understand. Unmet needs and underlying emotions are what drive misbehavior. Take the time to listen, understand and accept your child’s experience and feelings. This is the foundation of emotional intelligence.
5. Ask, don’t tell. When we make commands, we put our child on the defensive. Instead, phrase your request in the form of a question. Not only does this invite cooperation, but it also helps build critical thinking skills. For example, “What do you need to put on your feet so we can leave?” vs. “Put on your shoes!”
6. Be playful, silly and have fun! Our children want more than anything to please us and connect. They long to feel a sense of belonging and significance. Join your child in what they love most of all – to play and have fun. Isn’t this what childhood is all about!?
Listening is a skill. It takes time and patience to develop. When we take the time to listen to our kids, not just with our ears, but also with our hearts, amazing things can happen!