Sometimes it seems like my son can’t hear a word I’m saying. I feel like a CD that’s skipping, constantly repeating the same phrase over and over again. At times, I’ll bark orders at a tone that’s reminiscent of my mother.
It’s an age-old parenting dilemma that has led far too many of us to lose our cool.
In the Novak household, the most regular and egregious offense occurs in the early a.m. when my husband is trying to coax our 4-year-old son into getting himself dressed for school. Some days he abides, walking into the bedroom to boast that he’s fully dressed and ready to go. Other days he’s still running around with his shirt on and nothing else 15 minutes later. We’re always left wondering what we did right one day and wrong the next.
Getting kids to listen is no easy feat, but according to parenting experts, there are some tricks of the trade. Dr. Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist and founder of ahaparenting.com, says that no matter your child’s age, the same three principals apply when it comes to getting our kids to listen to us: stay calm, connect with your child and engage cooperation.
“The thing to remember is that when we get excited and raise our voices, our kids become anxious,” says Dr. Markham.
She reminds parents to take a deep breath (stay calm), put your hand on your child’s back (connect) and remind them that it’s time to get ready for school (engage cooperation). This intimates to kids that you’re on the same team and that you’re working together to accomplish a task.
She says that just as we don’t like to stop an activity when we’re in the middle of it, our children don’t like to switch gears when they’re playing with trains or watching their favorite show. Sudden stops can cause chaos. Remind kids that you understand their needs but at the same time, we have a task that needs to be accomplished.
David Kalergis, a licensed therapist and parenting counselor with Lowcountry Family & Children in Mount Pleasant, agrees that it’s crucial to connect with your child. He says that parents should make sure their child is paying attention before giving an instruction.
Kalergis says that we’re all guilty of yelling instructions at our kids from the top of the stairs, but it’s an ineffective means of doing business.
“If you have a child that is struggling with listening, more often ... than not, you are setting them up for failure, and wasting your breath,” says Kalergis. He says that establishing eye contact, using simple instructions and being careful not to repeat yourself is much more effective.
“Often times we can lose our child’s attention by harping on unnecessary details or being too complicated and longwinded in our requests. Be mindful to keep it simple,” says Kalergis.
Additionally, according to Dr. Markham, before age 6 kids don’t have the same concept of time as adults.
“Their prefrontal cortex isn’t wired for time,” she says. They don’t have the same relationship with being prompt. For this reason, she advises parents to avoid conflict by always leaving extra time to get places and get things done. “Aim for 10 minutes early,” she says.
As kids grow into teens, many of the same principles apply, according Dr. Markham. When we scream at kids or teens we’re likely to encounter resistance. So again, stay calm, try and connect with your teen and engage cooperation. Kids and teens want to feel understood, so try to look at things from their perspective.
When it comes to more serious topics liking talking to your teens about drinking, texting while driving, sex and other risky behaviors, “Start early and do it often,” says Dr. Markham. And understand that you’re constantly modeling behavior. Our kids and teens are incredibly observant. “If you text while you drive, expect that same behavior from your child. If you get home and the first thing you do is pour a drink, expect your child to have a similarly casual relationship with alcohol.”
Kalergis says that being clear about your expectations for your teen makes them less likely to take part in risky behavior.
“Do not be embarrassed or shy to share with your teenager your personal values and beliefs about sex … If you are clear about your hopes for your teen, they’ll be more likely to adopt those hopes and feelings too,” says Kalergis. “As parents, we make a big difference in our child’s decision-making. Our involvement, or lack of involvement, can go a long way. When teens feel they have a close bond or relationship with their parents and family, they are less likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors such as unprotected sex and drug use.”
Getting kids to listen is one of the hardest aspects of parenting. So often we feel like we’re talking to a brick wall. But according to experts, it’s the long game that matters. Taking the time to stay calm, look into your child’s eyes and establish a relationship can go a long way to getting them to play on your team.
And for parents who feel they’re just not getting through, don’t feel like a failure if you need to seek out help through counseling and therapy, because says Kalergis. “It’s never too late to repair broken communication.”