How do you get kids to listen?? I invited Dr. Becky Kennedy, a clinical psychologist specializing in anxiety, resilience, and parenting, to help us with strategies to get kids to listen without yelling.
One of the things I find myself saying to my husband over and over is, “WHY DON’T THEY LISTEN TO ME??!” It’s such a frustrating feeling. Dr. Becky Kennedy is here with 8 ways to get kids to listen without yelling. Dr. Becky is a graduate of Duke University and Columbia University. She maintains a private practice in midtown Manhattan, runs parenting groups and workshops, lectures on various mental health issues, and consults for organizations. Follow her on Instagram @drbeckyathome.
How to Get Kids to Listen with Dr. Becky
“My child doesn’t listen! I ask, she ignores, I yell, she screams, and then things just get worse from there. Please help!”
In my practice, “my kid doesn’t listen to me” is a common problem parents come to discuss. They want to know how to get kids to listen. And as a starting point, I always try to reframe the issue to get to the heart of what we are really talking about. See, no parent has ever said that listening is a problem when they tell a child, “Ice cream sundaes are on the kitchen table!” or, “You can start an extra TV show now!”
What we are really talking about when we refer to “listening” is this: cooperation from my child when I want my child to do something she doesn’t want to do.
Which makes me think, what do we, as adults, do when someone asks us to do something we don’t want to do? Well, it’s all based on how close we feel to that person in the moment. For example, imagine you’re sitting on your couch at night, with a partner, after your kids are finally asleep. You are both relaxing and reading. Let’s say he turns to you and says, “Can you go make me something to eat?” Ok, pause. Now, if you’re feeling especially close to your husband or maybe he had just really listened to something you wanted to talk about or he had just noticed your stress and offered to put the kids to bed while you could relax… my guess is you might say yes. But if things felt distant and you’d been feeling unappreciated or misunderstood, my guess is you’d say, “What? I just sat down! You can do that yourself!”
Here’s the truth about listening: the more you feel connected to someone, the more you want to comply with requests. The best advice I can give around engaging cooperation and listening is to shore-up your relationship with your child.
Let’s review some in-the-moment strategies, but don’t be fooled – you cannot engage longer term cooperation by only relying on this list. It’s important to set aside some time to reframe this whole “not listening” issue as a relationship dynamic that needs some attention.
8 Strategies to Get Kids to Listen
The following strategies involve building experiences of connection, which helps improve cooperation and listening:
1. Connect to your child in the moment before you ask something from her.
My eight-year-old son told me this about listening: “Kids don’t always listen because usually a parent asks us to stop doing something fun to do something that isn’t fun.” So connect to your child before you make a request to do something “less fun.” Your child has to feel seen in what she’s doing or feeling before she’s able to switch out of something that feels good in her world (i.e., playing with toys) and fulfill a request that is a priority in your parenting world (i.e., cleaning up toys and having dinner).
- “Wow, you’ve been working so hard on that tower. I know it’s going to be a bit tricky to pause and take a bath. If we do a quick bath now, you will still have time to build before bed.”
- “I know it’s so hard to end play dates because you’ve been having so much fun. We have to leave now, but Kate’s mom and I can set up your next playdate really soon.”
Humor allows for a change in perspective, which is what we are looking for when we ask things of our children. When we bring laughter into the equation, our kids feel more connected to us and are more likely to cooperate.
- “Oh no… your listening ears are lost! Ok wait, I think I found them. Oh my goodness can you believe this… I found them in this plant! How did they get there? Let’s get them back on your body before they sprout into a flower!”
- “My mommy is always asking me to do things I don’t want to do! It is so hard to be a kid! If only my mom understood how hard it is to be a kid, always being asked to do things you don’t want to do!”
3. Focus on your soft, calm tone first… and your words second.
Our children feel the non-verbal aspects of our speech before they process our words, and children need to feel safe to process the language we use. This means that if we use a scary tone of voice, our children go into threat mode and literally will not be able to listen to us because their body is too overwhelmed with anxiety.
- Take a deep breath before you speak to your kid.
- Think, “Slow, soft, steady” with your speech.
4. Empower your child with choices.
If you can give your child agency to make a choice, he will be more likely to cooperate. No one likes feeling “done to,” especially children who already feel so controlled a lot of the time. Give choices that you can deal with and then let your child know that you trust him to follow through on that choice.
- “We can leave Abby’s house now or you can play one more card game together. I’ll leave it up to you … Oh, after one more game? I know you’ll follow through with that choice, so that’s fine with me.”
- “You can clear your dishes now or come back to do it after your shower… oh, after your shower? Ok, I trust that you will do that, sounds good.”
5. Let some of it go.
Think about what demands you can put on the back burner. I think that a lot of us (me included!) worry that we are not being good parents if we are “too lenient” and “let things go” sometimes, but what we often lose sight of is that our child listening to us often isn’t worth it if it comes at the expense of our relationship.
- Give yourself permission to clear your child’s dishes here and there.
- Give yourself permission to hang your child’s towel when you notice it on the ground.
- Give yourself permission to allow your child to forget to say thank you when he leaves a friend’s house … don’t ask him to say it on the way out and don’t lecture about it when you’re in private. Model the thank you yourself and let it go.
6. Reverse Roles.
Find a few times to play the “I have to listen to you now” game with your child. Introduce this by saying to your child, “I know being a kid is tough. There are so many things that parents ask of you! So, let’s play a game. For the next 5 minutes, you’re the adult and I’m the kid. I have to do what you say, assuming it’s safe.”
What’s important is to reverse roles and allow your child to experiment with the position of powerful adult and for you to express empathy for the difficulties of being a child. While you play the game, be exaggerated in expressing how hard it is to listen to your “parent”; voice things like, “Ughhhhhh, really? I have to clean up the magnatiles? I don’t waaaaaaant to,” and “Ughhhhh, I wish I didn’t have to take a shower right now!”
7. Search for the moments your child is listening and give positive feedback.
When I say “search,” I mean it, because when things feel tough with one of our children, we often have to almost manufacture opportunities that feel like “wins.” But we want to get our kids back on a positive cycle, not stuck in a negative one.
- “Wow, thanks for listening right away. I noticed that I only had to ask once.”
- “I asked you to come to the table and you did. I’m really loving that cooperation, thank you.” Add in a hug.
8. Reflect on what your child needs, more long-term, to strengthen your relationship.
Now remember – no one is saying that your relationship with your child is in the pits. It’s very likely that you haven’t done anything wrong at all! Think smaller, something like, “Ok, I just need to think about closing some gap that must exist between me and my child right now. I am a good parent to be willing to reflect on things in this way!”
There’s no magic formula, so just allow yourself to wonder about what’s going on with your child. Does he need some more one-on-one time with you, even just 10 phone-free minutes early in the morning or late at night? Does he feel misunderstood or judged? Is he struggling with something at school and hasn’t talked about it with you? There are endless questions to ask, and I encourage all parents to just start by to reframing “not listening” not as a child-only problem but as a sign that something in the parent-child relationship needs some more attention.
Thank you, Dr. Becky!
Tip #4 about empowering your child with choices is especially helpful at mealtimes. Dr. Becky said, “If you can give your child agency to make a choice, he will be more likely to cooperate.”
This is SO TRUE for toddlers at mealtimes. If you can give them a choice, it helps with cooperation. Let them choose their plate, and give options where you can. For example, “peanut butter or almond butter?”
I have a free download with Breakfast Choice Cards, to help toddlers feel in control of what they get to eat to start their day. You’ll give them 2-3 choices of things you have (and are willing to make!) and give them the power to choose.