How to speak to your children so they will listen

The child development field has collective wisdom to offer on the best ways to communicate with your children to maximize a positive result.

 LEAVING HUMOROUS rather than matter-of-fact notes can put a lighthearted spin on parental directives. (photo credit: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash)
LEAVING HUMOROUS rather than matter-of-fact notes can put a lighthearted spin on parental directives.
(photo credit: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash)

“Insanity is hereditary; you get it from your children.” – Sam Levinson

“A two-year-old is kind of like having a blender, but you don’t have a top for it.”– Jerry Seinfeld

Perhaps the opening quotes comically express what parents feel when they ask me for help with managing and communicating with their children.

Although there may be many books on the market and varying child-rearing philosophies, I believe that the child development field has collective wisdom to offer on the best ways to communicate with your children to maximize a positive result.

 Mother and child (credit: INGIMAGE) Mother and child (credit: INGIMAGE)
Connect before you express. 

Open your request with the child’s name.

In addition, parent-child communication is more effective when a parent begins by making eye contact with the child. First of all, ask the child to look you in the eyes, and only then begin to communicate with the child. Eye contact is the critical factor.

Don’t use physical punishment. 

The parent who regularly resorts to physical punishment can be guaranteed of one thing – raising a child who will most likely use the same approach with others, be it siblings or peers, or even toward the parents. Invariably, the child who is hit regularly by a parent will suffer from low self-esteem, and this can literally last a lifetime. 

Instead, teach children what they did wrong by talking to them. Starting from the time they are young, make sure they understand the rules and repeat them regularly and explain why they are important to you.

Granted, some kids are more challenging and they may make you very angry, but clearly, physical punishment will not be effective in the short and long run. Parents who have anger management problems may need to seek out therapy to learn how to manage their anger.

Be aware of your tone of voice. 

It’s not usually what people say, but how they say it that makes the difference in being heard correctly. Like adults, children are more likely to be attentive if spoken to in a respectful way. Be aware of your child’s possible sensitivities to your verbal delivery. 

Don’t embarrass your children. 

No one likes to be embarrassed or humiliated in front of others. The same holds true for your children. In the heat of the moment, all parents have been guilty of calling their kids out in front of relatives and friends, and using name-calling or cursing designed to sting and get the child’s attention. The result can be resentment and embarrassment.

This is especially true for a teenager who may feel downright humiliated when an angry parent calls him/her out in front of friends.

It is always a good idea to pull the child aside, go to a private space away from others, and then say what you want to say. 

Keep it simple and clear. 

Whenever possible, don’t beat around the bush when you have something important to convey to your child. Be clear and concise. Both younger children and teenagers appreciate their parents being frank and asking direct questions such as “where are you going?” and agreeing on a time to be home.

Ask the child to repeat back what you stated. Too often, parent-child disputes occur because of misunderstandings. “Oh, I though you said I can come home at 11 p.m.” A simple good rule in communicating is to say what you have to say and then immediately ask your child to repeat back what they heard you say to them. This way, you can check whether the child actually and accurately understood what you communicated.

Begin your directives with “I want.” Instead of “Get down,” say “I want you to get down.” Instead of “Let Rivka have a turn,” say “I want you to let Rivka have a turn now.” This works well with children who want to please but don’t like being ordered. By saying “I want,” you give a reason for compliance rather than just an order. 

“When... then.” When you get your teeth brushed, then we’ll begin the story.” “When your work is finished, then you can watch TV.” “When,” which implies that you expect obedience, works better than “if,” which suggests that the child has a choice when you don’t mean to give him one. 

Give choices. 

As a general rule, everyone like some control, even your kids. So, give choices whenever possible such as “Do you want to put your pajamas on or brush your teeth first?” 

Write down reminders. Children, especially preteens and teenagers, don’t like to be constantly reminded. They feel like they are being nagged.

Studies have shown that parents leaving humorous notes – such as “Don’t forget to put the dishes in the dish washer, we have the prime minister coming over this evening” – can put a lighthearted spin on parental directives. Try it and sit back and enjoy the results. 

Talk the child down. 

The louder your child yells, the softer you respond. Let your child ventilate while you interject timely comments: “I understand” or “Can I help?” Sometimes just having a caring listener available will wind down the tantrum.

If you come in at his or her level, you have two tantrums to deal with. Be the adult for him/her. 

Give advance notice. 

“We are leaving soon. Say bye-bye to the toys, bye-bye to the girls....” 

Let your child know that you are interested in his day. 

One of the ways a parent can show a child that he really cares is to ask “how was your day?” You may be surprised about how much good communication can ensue when we ask this question. Too often, busy parents, struggling with their own stress, overlook the mood status of their children. 

NO DOUBT, parenting is both a big responsibility and a formidable challenge. Most of us are not born with these skills. They can, however, be learned. Furthermore, remember that most parents struggle with parenting issues.

So go easy on yourself and enjoy the teachable moments. Don’t worry, there will be many. 

The writer is a marital, child and adult cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist and consultant with offices in Ra’anana and Jerusalem, and also conducts sessions online.; [email protected]