How to Talk So Your Children Will Listen
Ellen Mishel, MSS, LSW, MFT is a licensed social worker and Certified Parenting Educator who works with individuals, couples, families, and more.
Are you frustrated that your child isn’t listening to you? Are you feeling stressed because there’s yelling and screaming in your home, but your communication still isn’t effective?
Improving the way your family communicates can help calm the atmosphere in your home, and you can start by utilizing active listening. This healthy form of communication can help build self-esteem, decrease anger, and help you maintain discipline.
But how do you actively listen?
Listen to your child in a calm manner.
This may be surprising to hear, but I think that the greatest gift that you can give your children is to listen to them in a calm way. This builds trust and deepens your relationship with your child.
Remain unbiased to what your child says.
Active listening requires no judgment or evaluation of what your child is saying. It is accepting their comments, even if you don’t necessarily agree with them. By omitting judgment, you show your child that you hear what they are saying and appreciate their experience. This provides them with emotional safety and compassion.
Respond with warmth and care.
The need to actively listen is usually greatest when your child is full of emotion, or very upset about something. Try not to take what your child says personally, but use this as an opportunity to invite your child to say more. It may be difficult at first, so be patient with yourself; active listening is a skill that can take some time.
Use passive listening responses.
The passive listening response is like what we think of in the movies—when a therapist exhibits good eye contact, nods their head, and says, ‘hmmmm’. This kind of passive listening focuses your non-judgmental attention by signaling that you are hearing what your child says.
Reflect back what your child says.
Another technique of active listening is “parroting” back what your child says, as it helps them know that you hear them. For example, if your child says, “I hate what we are having for dinner!” You could respond to them in an understanding, non-declarative tone, “You really hate what we are having for dinner.” This invites them to say more, and it offers room for a dialogue; gives the opportunity for your child to jump in and express their wishes as a point of clarification.
Acknowledge your child’s feelings, and reflect it back to them.
I think this technique is the most important type of response we can provide to our children. In your response, try to determine what underlying emotion your child is feeling. Remember, at this point we are trying to get a little bit of a dialogue going and we are not taking what they say personally.
An example might be:
Your child screams,
“Mom, I hate school! I’m not going to do this homework! I can’t do it!”
In an effort to reflect what your child might be feeling, you could respond,
“You seem really frustrated today, it sounds like you’re really overwhelmed with your homework.”
As the conversation continues and you invite your child to say more, you might end up learning about a root-cause issue, not just the surface emotion.
Pay attention to non-verbal cues.
It’s likely that your child doesn’t verbalize many of the emotions that they feel. There are many non-verbal cues a parent can “listen” to. Picking up on non-verbal cues, like body language, provides an opportunity for you to understand and communicate with your child. While it may not be an easy skill to use at first, it will allow you to become a secure base for your child.
Calmly listening to your child builds trust and deepens your relationship. Active listening allows your child to know that you are there for them and will be there for them when they need. Over time, your child will know that they can turn to you when they have a problem.