How to make kids listen: this is the number one struggle heard from parents every day. You want your kids to obey your word, but most times it turns into a never-ending power struggle.
By choosing NOT to listen, children can assert their power. This behavior is simply a way children express their need for more control and decision-making ability in their lives.
Children of all ages—toddler through teens—have a hard-wired need for power. When children don’t have opportunities to exert their power in positive ways—choosing what clothes to wear, making the dinner menu, picking what game to play, etc.—they will exert their power in negative ways.
You ask your child to do something really simple–like pick up the toys–and not only do they not follow your advice, they dig in their heels, resisting your simple instructions even more.
Up until now, you’ve tried all the parenting techniques you knew as a child, but the traditional methods don’t seem to be working. So you need some strategies that will help your parenting days feel easier and less stressful.
I remember when I first became a mom and I read countless articles about teaching kids obedience at an early age. I heard tips like…
Those techniques are like the bandaid of parenting. They cover up the boo-boo but they don’t actually heal the wound. After a while, you’ve got a lot of open parenting wounds covered up by bandaids without any real solutions.
Teaching blind obedience to the word “no” or attempting to “control your kids” leaves you feeling defeated and discouraged as a parent. Because those things don’t really work.
In order to learn how to make kids listen, you need to give your child the skills they need to make smart choices, even when you are not around.
Let’s look at how you can…
Here is the ultimate list of resources to help you answer the golden question: how to make kids listen.
We could spend hours rambling about your child’s brain all the fancy science behind it. We could talk synapses, myelination, frontal cortex, neuron, cortical and subcortical structures, but truthfully, who has time for that?
Let’s keep it simple. You need a basic understanding of how your child processes information. This is the key unlocking better listening, cooperation, fewer power struggles and more peaceful days. Knowing how your child’s brain works empowers you to shift your approach to one that is more effective. Let’s work smarter, not harder, right?
Important structure #1: Prefrontal cortex
This is your child’s thinking brain and it’s located in the front of the brain, right behind the forehead. It handles logic, empathy, compassion, creativity, self-regulation, self-awareness, predicting, planning, problem solving and attention. While an adult’s prefrontal cortex is fully mature and operates at an extremely high level, it is the most immature part of your child’s brain.
Important structure #2: Limbic system
This is your child’s emotional brain. It processes memory, stress responses, nurturing, caring, separation anxiety, fear, rage, social bonding and hormone control. During the early years, the limbic system is the front seat driver of the brain, and it doesn’t care what anyone in the backseat has to say about it.
Important structure #3: Synapses
Synapses are the connections inside your child’s brain and this is how the brain communicates. Think of them as a huge pile of tangled string all in one ball. Each string represents a communication pathway in your child’s brain.
When you are struggling with listening, communication or power struggles, remember that repeated use strengthens a synapse. This is why consistent approaches to listening and behavior are so important. The groundwork you lay during the early years sets the foundation for the years to come.
You now know that the emotional brain is the motivation of all things in the world of your child. If you truly want to make kids listen, you must tap into the emotional brain to rev up their motivation. This will make life so much easier for you as a parent.
From an emotional standpoint kids want…
Before you can improve your child’s listening skills, you must help them process emotions and feelings. This is easier than it sounds and it can take as little as a few minutes!
How to tap into your child’s emotion…
When you need your child’s attention, make sure you get her attention—that means eye contact. When you lower yourself down and look her in the eye, you not only verify she sees and hears you, but you strengthen the communication as well. This means you might have to step away from the laundry or put down the whisk for a minute and step into the other room. Proximity is key—you’re not talking down to her or barking orders from the other room—you’re speaking with her.
Tapping into the emotion builds the connection with your child. There is nothing more comforting to a child than a parent who listens and understands. This is a HUGE and important step!
When kids feel that connection to you, they are more likely to respect and follow your word. You build the trust, love and connection, and the results will start to follow.
2.Do Away With Don’t - Focus on what the child can do
Show your child what good behavior looks like. Children often get punished for behavior rather than being taught or shown an alternative strategy or different behavior. Here is an example:
Teach your child how to ask for things — if you see your child snatch a toy from another child, teach him how to ask for the toy rather than yelling or punishing him for snatching the toy. Show him how to ask and have him practice it. Next time you see your child asking nicely for a toy, acknowledge the behavior (e.g.,That was really nice when you asked Michael to play with his toy).
That’s confusing and contradictory. For example, if you say “Don’t touch your brother,” a child has to stop the current behavior AND determine the appropriate alternative behavior—If I can’t touch him, does that mean I can’t hug him? Can we play tag? Can I give him a high five? Can I help him put on his jacket or tie his shoes if mom asks?
Instead, tell your child what to DO.
Instead of “Don’t touch your brother,” try “Use gentle touches when touching your brother” or “Your brother doesn’t want to be touched right now, so please keep your hands folded while we are in the car.”
Instead of “Don’t leave your toys all over the floor,” try “Please put your toys in the toy bin.”
Instead of “Don’t run in the hall,” try “Please walk in the hall.”
Instead of…”Don’t push your sister.” Try…”You can be more gentle. Show me how you’re gentle.”
Instead of…”You didn’t clean anything up in your room like I told you.” Try…”The toys are on the floor. The room needs cleaning. I can help you get started with the cleaning. I’ll bet if we race, we can get it all done in only a few minutes!”
Instead of…”You’re going to bed right now. Because I said so.” Try…”You don’t want to go to bed. You wish you could stay up late. You don’t want to miss anything. You can take a quiet toy with you to bed. Which one would you like to take?”
“Keep working on your homework.” rather than “Stop daydreaming.”
“Here, draw on this paper.” rather than “Stop drawing on the walls.”
“Hand me my purse.” rather than “Stop going in my purse.”
“Walk nicely in the house.” rather than “Stop running in the house.”
"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."
Don't ask - tell: Don’t use ‘can” be assertive when giving a direction, such as “Can you walk nicely in the house?” - Walk nicely in the house or “Can you draw on this paper?” - Draw etc. Give the direction and say it with confidence.
Think about it for a moment. What is your normal, knee-jerk reaction to the 10,000 requests you get from your child every day? “NO,” right?
When you’re bombarded with requests, it’s difficult to sift through them in a meaningful way, so you just deliver canned responses—“No, not today.” “No, I don’t have time for that.” “No.” “Nope.” “Nada.”
But when “no” is your constant go-to answer, it’s no wonder kids stop listening to YOUR requests! Look for reasons to say yes more often. Your “yes” answers will begin to surprise and delight your child and have them paying more attention when you ask for something!
Instead of “No we can’t go to the park,” try “The park sounds awesome! Should we go Friday after school or Saturday morning?”
Instead of “No, you can’t have ice cream” try “Ice cream is delicious! Would you like to have it for dessert on Saturday or Sunday evening?”
While there will still be situations that require a hard “no,” by offering more “yeses” you’ll increase the chances your kid will tune you back in.
Oh boy, I was as guilty of this as anyone. Parents, and especially moms, tend to turn a five-second answer into a five-minute dissertation!
There’s a saying in the sales industry, “never sell with blah-blah what you can sell with blah.” I think it makes sense in parenting too. When trying to get your kid’s attention, be as concise as possible and they won’t even have time to tune you out!
Be consistent and always follow through (barring unforeseen circumstances). If you tell your child that he can earn a privilege for completing certain tasks or meeting certain expectations, stick to what you said (e.g., first homework, then TV), and make sure you give the earned privilege after the task is completed. If you do not allow your child to earn the privileges you promised, he will not take you or your rules seriously. You also need to stay strong. When he pushes you “I don’t want to do my homework!” and tries to turn on the television, give a reminder in a confident, neutral tone, “Homework first, then tv.”
Help your kids make an appropriate choice by taking this leap of faith. Your preemptive “Thank you for hanging up your towel after your shower,” will encourage your kids toward good behavior much more than, “I better not see your towel on the floor again!”
People, and yes, even children, will usually live up to our expectations if we manage them in a positive way. Letting them know, in advance, that you trust them to do the right thing will cultivate open communication lines and increase the likelihood the task will get completed.
Acknowledge when your child puts forth a good effort. People like to hear when they did something right and this includes children. When people know they are doing the right things and pleasing others, they want to do more of it. Some examples for acknowledging effort include: “You worked really hard on cleaning your room; it looks great,” “I saw you studying really hard for that test; you really put a lot of effort into it,” “I know you don’t like sharing your toys with your brother; but I saw you sharing really nicely with him this morning! Keep up the good work!” Even if your child does not seem to care or does not seem phased by the praise, do it anyway. Their reaction on the outside may not match how they feel on the inside.
A simple way to ensure your child has heard you and that she understands is to ask her to repeat back what you said.
In the medical field, studies have shown that 40-80% of the information doctors relay to patients is either forgotten completely or misunderstood (and keep in mind, these are ADULTS we are talking about, not just children).
To combat this misunderstanding, doctors have begun using the teach-back method which calls on patients to “teach back” to the doctor what treatment instructions they were just given. This method has been shown to drastically increase information retention from patients.
The same tool can be used effectively with children. Once you’ve made eye contact, shortened your speech, and clearly explained what you need your child to do, calmly ask your child to repeat back what they’ve just heard.
By ensuring everyone is on the same page, you will see an instant improvement in communication and cooperation in your home.
If you see a task that’s been left undone, don’t dive in with a big reprimand, just make an OBSERVATION: “I see a jacket on the floor,” or you can ask, “What is your plan for taking care of the trash today?”
“What is your plan for?” is one of my favorite strategies to avoid power struggles. It’s empowering because it’s assumptive on your part that they have a plan—and gives your child an opportunity to save face and quickly come up with a plan in the moment if they didn’t already have one!
“Oh yeah! I was planning on taking out the trash right after I finish my lunch.” This gives you the chance to put a positive parenting empowerment spin on the whole conversation! “That’s awesome—I really appreciate your help, buddy.”
8. Encourage Independence
Encourage your child to be independent. Let your child do as much as he can on his own, providing assistance only when necessary. One strategy I love, is to wait for the child to ask for help before offering it. I have watched a child struggle to get the wrapper off his juice box straw on several occasions. Rather than saying “Here, let me help you,” I would simply wait to see what he would do. Sometimes he would ask for help, other times he would eventually get it on his own. In some instances the child would get frustrated, throw down the straw and say, “I can’t do it.” This led to a perfect opportunity to teach the child how to ask for help.
Through it all STAY CALM
A little more…
Set up routines …
"What else do you have to do before you leave the house? Let's check your schedule."
After school every day you can have a snack then he must do his homework. After that he can do an activity of his choosing.This is much more effective than pressuring a child to do his homework, and then saying “That’s it. You’re not watching TV!” when he doesn’t complete it. Children are much more cooperative when they know the expectations ahead of time and have the power to earn something, than when being threatened that something will be taken away.
To sum up ...
Grab attention - eye-contact
Name the feeling- you seem frustrated followed by ‘oh/okay’ then ‘How can we work this out so …..’
Don't’ ask - tell Don’t use ‘can” be assertive.
Give kids time to respond
Praise behaviour - not the child
Choose your words - ‘sit still’ becomes ‘chairs are for sitting’
‘Stop touching’ becomes ‘those things are delicate and can break easily.’