9 Simple ways to get your child to listen

Pam was a single mom looking for simple ways to get 6-year-old Jenna to listen, especially during homework. Jenna would push Pam’s buttons, spouting off words like, “I’ll do what I want!” Exhausted from a long day, Pam often responded with a snappy, “You’ll do as I say!”

Like so many parents, Pam was filled with self-doubt and self-criticism. She had become her own worst critic.  Pam was constantly beating herself up. I’m supposed to know how to get my child to listen, she told herself.  As homework hassles escalated, Pam felt helpless and uncertain more often than not. Throughout the day, her mind was constantly bombarded with, “I wish I didn’t say that. I don’t want Jenna to feel upset.  Sometimes, I feel like I don’t even deserve to be a mom.

As Pam learned these nine simple ways to get your child to listen, Jenna’s behavior began to change. If you feel like Pam, tired of trying to get your child to listen, these next steps are for you!

Identify events that push your buttons

Pam had good intentions when it came to getting Jenna to listen.  Thankfully, she identified a few deficient areas that kept her from getting the results she desired. First, she did not practice good self-care. She was worn down, going on fumes and never taking time for herself. Pam’s frazzled state of mind and constant fatigue made her especially vulnerable. In addition, her emotional acceptance was low, and her expectations of Jenna’s capacity were too high. She disciplined her like a drill sergeant, barking orders, instead of approaching her like a coach, gently but firmly guiding her.

Lastly, Pam struggled with communication, engaging in a monologue instead of a dialogue. All these things helped trigger unwanted behavior in Jenna.  As a result, Pam was warning, lecturing and reminding Jenna instead of connecting with her. As Pam began taking much-needed time for herself and changing her approach with Jenna, restoring the harmony in her living room was almost immediate.

Add in stuff that generates the desired behavior

When trying to get your children to listen, one of the best approaches is to use a calm voice. This may go against everything you feel inside at the moment as your patience grows thin, but maintaining a calm voice can work wonders. A calm voice says, “I care. I am safe. You matter. I’m on your team.”  A calm voice is less likely to activate the survival centers in your child’s brain, which naturally revert to fight or flight reflex.

If you are struggling to maintain a calm voice, try leaving sticky notes around the classroom or the house as memory cues. Don’t be afraid to ask your kids for help, saying, “Please remind Mommy to use a calm voice when she’s talking to you.” If you find yourself raising your voice, don’t beat yourself up. And if you’re really struggling, consider finding an accountability partner, someone you can call when the going gets tough and help you offload your stress.

Remove stuff that causes stress

As Pam reflected on her life as a mom, she realized that many things had caused her to become stressed and frazzled over the years. She operated like a high-speed train all the time, never slowing down. By lowering her activity level to a more manageable schedule, Pam began to find rest and even peace in her days. She stopped saying yes to every social request and cleared her calendar to make time for herself.  She also learned to manage Jenna’s arousal level better, instilling rules like “No wrestling in the house!” and “All balls must stay outside.”

Removing existing stressors is key to getting your children to listen. When you are not frazzled or on the go at all times, you are able to think more clearly, take a deep breath, and be a calm resource for your kiddos.

 Practice the desired behavior

As Pam began practicing the above techniques, she went to bed each night, rating herself on her daily connection with Jenna. Did she enjoy quality time with her?  Was she emotionally present? Did she use clear, easy to understand statements? Did she bark out orders, or did she give Jenna choices? When communicating, did she speak calmly, using good eye contact and asking Jenna to repeat what she’d said? As time went by, she was able to substitute unwanted behavior with good alternatives. As Jenna started listening the first time, Pam began to reclaim her family harmony.

Identify the consequences that made things worse

As parents wanting our children to listen, it is easy to view their unwanted behavior as unwilling, manipulative, disrespectful and a poor choice. When Jenna acted out, Pam believed she was trying to push her buttons on purpose. But as she learned to shift her thought process, she recognized the hidden forces that drove Jenna’s behavior. Instead of barking orders, giving in to unwanted behavior just to avoid a meltdown, and eventually giving up, Pam began using an empathetic approach. She began giving Jenna choices and remaining calm yet firm.  She taught Jenna how to self-soothe when she was upset.  To Pam’s delight, Jenna responded to this approach because she believed her mom was now on her side instead of against her.

Reinforce the desired behavior

Catch your child doing something good! All children need an “attaboy” and a pat on the back when they do as they are told. When children bring home a great report card or help in the kitchen, make sure to praise them, focusing on their effort and not their “good behavior.”  Instead of saying, “Good girl!” you might try saying, “Thank you so much for helping me!” Instead of saying, “Nice job!” try saying, “I notice how hard you tried!” If your child brings home all A’s, don’t just say, “Another great report card! Wow!” Try saying, “Your hard work really paid off!”  Talking this way shows your child you’re focused on the effort they put in and encourages them to take pride in their work or progress.

Make sure that protest and refusal are not accidentally rewarded. 

The next time your child refuses to listen, don’t be afraid to hold him responsible for his poor actions. Behaviorists will tell you to ignore your child when they get upset at you for enforcing your rules. Attachment folks will tell you to love your children through their distress for as long as it takes. Neither of these approaches fully works.  They tend to be either too harsh or too permissive. For children to be receptive and not reactive, they need to know that you are really listening.  Connecting this way helps calm their reactive brain.  However, once they are receptive, they still need to do what they are told.

The next time you’re tempted to ignore your child and just walk out of the room or smother your child with love, do something different.  Try an empathetic approach instead.  For starters, go “brain dead.”  In other words, don’t invest too much thought or energy into the unwanted behavior. Next, remain emotionally engaged and present while also being emotionally neutral when your child doesn’t listen.  Lastly, try using one simple, empathetic phrase like “I know… this is so frustrating… I’m sorry. But I love you too much to argue, sweetie.”

Identify the actions, thoughts, and feelings you want to change

As Pam began changing her approach with Jenna, she took a look at her relationship with Jenna and reflected on what she wanted to change. She recognized that she did not want to be a drill sergeant or a dictator. In contrast, Pam wanted to function as a coach who focused on mentoring and discipleship.  In addition, Pam realized that she assumed Jenna acted out because she wanted to push her buttons or disrespect her. Now, she recognized the hidden factors driving Jenna’s unwanted behavior.  Pam recognized that Jenna may simply be hungry, angry, lonely or tired and in need of a little TLC. This helped Pam move from judgment to empathy and compassion for Jenna as she put herself in her shoes.

Substitute unwanted behavior with alternatives

In the past, Pam used to negotiate with Jenna, which often led to a standoff.  “Why haven’t you picked up your toys?” she barked at her. Practicing her new approach, Pam moved toward “I” statements, saying things like, “Feel free to keep the toys you pick up”. When Jenna would interrupt, she said calmly, “I will be glad to speak to you when I’m done.” These statements put her back in control without all the drama.

Point to Ponder

All of us have been Pam at one point or another. It is easy to lose our cool, beat ourselves up and engage in power struggles with our children when trying to get them to listen. But with these nine simple steps, you can begin to see a change in your home as your relationship with your child moves from difficult to harmonious.

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