Getting Your Kids to Listen: No Longer a Lost Hope

Pretend you and your friend have plans to go out for dinner. You’ve been looking forward to a night out for weeks. On the morning of your date, she phones to cancel. She forgot, tonight is the night of the big football game, and Dan, her husband, has tickets. She’ll have to stay home with the kids. You say…? (a) “Why did you wait until the last minute before cancelling. I could have made other plans. You’ve blown my one free night. Couldn’t you be a little more considerate.” (b) “You can’t make it. What a disappointment. I’ve been looking forward to this evening for weeks. I guess we’ll have to make it another time.” The first message is directed at your friend, blaming her for not telling you sooner about her other commitment. The second focuses on you and how you feel about not being able to go out for dinner. The first invites a retaliatory comment from your friend, while the second leaves the door open for an apology.

What works with kids? If you want your children to listen to you, tell them how you feel about what they’re doing. “Whenever you ignore me, I feel sad, because I think you don’t respect what I have to say.” This message has three parts: (a) what your child did wrong, (b) how the consequences of her behavior make you feel, (c) why her behavior is causing you a problem (tangible effect on you). If you don’t think you can remember all three parts, think of these cue words: (a) when (state behavior), (b) I feel, (c) because (consequence). The focus is not on what your children do, but on how the consequences of their behavior bug you, and how that makes you feel.

“I” messages don’t always come out with all three parts, but that’s okay. For instance, “I can’t hear the news with all that racquet in the background” does not have a feeling part. What it does have however is an implicit appeal for help from you, and what it doesn’t have is a judgmental attitude. The power of the message comes from your admission that you have a problem and need help. You’ll find when you talk to your kids in this way they’ll think about what you’re saying and put their thoughts into actions.

What doesn’t work with kids? Critical “You” messages like “you are getting on my nerves,” “I told you so,” and “you better do it right this time.” There’s more than one reason why you should not talk to your kids this way. First of all, “You” messages are vague. They don’t tell children what they did wrong, or how you feel about what they did. It’s no wonder children tune out “you” messages. Secondly, children don’t like being commanded to do things. Can you blame them? Nobody likes to be told what to do. They often respond by stalling or simply saying “No,” which usually leads to more desperate measures by you.

A third reason you should steer clear of finger-pointing comments is that they deny children a chance to turn around the wrong they did. They don’t feel like being nice to someone who has just put them down. Finally, accusatory “You” responses make children feel guilty and rejected by their parents. Children come out thinking they’re not-okay and less than everybody else. Some kids fight back, pushing buttons to make their parents feel bad. Others keep their anger inside, which can set the scene for emotional problems later in life.