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Listen Up! Communicating Effectively With Your Kids

What parent hasn’t issued a request to their child, only to be met with a blank stare or worse, crickets? With every repeated query, parents spiral further into frustration. It’s discouraging, defeating, and just plain maddening - why can’t kids just listen? Because getting kids to listen isn’t as simple as it seems - and reasons kids might not listen are as varied as kids themselves. Read on for age-by-age guidance on creating better communication with your kids, so you and your kids can feel heard and respected.

Early Years: Ages 0 to 5

Eye to Eye

Toddlers and preschoolers may appear to disregard your requests, but they aren’t actively resisting; when they’re engaged in play or another activity, they might be genuinely oblivious to your words. When communicating a request, it’s important to ensure that the request was heard before assuming that a child is being disrespectful, says Réa M. Wright, LPC, a family therapist. Caregivers should treat toddlers and preschoolers with the same respect and care they’d give an adult, she says. “Young children need to feel seen and heard, and be spoken to respectfully, with kindness and care, with age-appropriate requests.”

Offer toddlers and preschoolers two or three choices, and use a multi-faceted communication approach - combining verbal requests with visual cues and body language - to make sure your request gets through, recommend education experts Roslyn A. Haber, Ed.D., and Marlyn Press, Ed.D., associate professors at Touro College Graduate School of Education. Put this into practice: Get down on a child’s level, make eye contact, use a soft voice, the child’s name, and a gentle touch on the child’s arm or shoulder while speaking to them.

Elementary Years: Ages 6 to 12

Brick Wall

Fewer experiences inspire more parental frustration than speaking to an apparently unresponsive child. Being ‘ignored’ is a common experience for parents, and often reflects an underlying power struggle. When pre-teens feel spoken ‘at’ instead of with, or field lots of repeated requests from caregivers, tweens may simply tune parents out. Or tweens may ignore parental requests because experience has taught them that parents will soon throw their hands up in exasperation and stomp away, without following through on the request.

The best approach? Ensure your child hears you by getting into their line of vision and making eye contact, then calmly and rationally state your request along with reasonable consequences if the request is ignored. Kids can then decide on their own to comply, says Wright, which diffuses any power struggles. “The calmer I am when I’m being ignored by a child, the more efficient and effective my responses are liable to be,” she says. “Give your kids options. And if you’re ignored, articulate the natural and logical consequences. Be prepared and willing to follow through on those consequences swiftly and calmly without yelling, bargaining, demanding, or threatening,” she says.

Teen Years: Ages 13 to 18

Two-Way Street

Want teens to listen? Hear them out. Teens need to feel heard in order to open up and be receptive to listening, says Wright. Teens live to test boundaries; becoming independent is, after all, their job. Keep this in mind as you build healthy two-way communication, says Wright. “I often tell parents that listening to teens is probably a lot more important than lecturing them.”

To encourage teens to talk and listen, follow their lead. Talk about topics they’re interested in, ask questions, and genuinely listen to their responses, even if that means being subjected to a 30-minute verbal essay on the merits of their favorite band. Teens tend to be more open to communicating with parents when they’re side-by-side, instead of face-to-face, so go for a drive, a walk, or volunteer together. Try not to interrupt. Ask “tell me” or “how” questions, and never act shocked or judgmental, even if your teen reveals something shocking. Model effective and empathetic listening, and teens will follow suit.

Malia is an award-winning health and parenting journalist, and mom of three. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.


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