Getting Your Child to Listen
Are you sick of fighting with your kiddo? Fed up with power struggles? Why don’t kids listen? How can you get your child to just do what you say?
Sometimes it can seem impossible to get your kiddo to cooperate at all, much less the first time you ask. Whether it be putting on their clothes, washing their hands, picking up toys, or getting them to do any task that seems simple—when you feel your kid isn’t listening, it can leave you feeling frustrated and defeated. But why aren’t they listening? The pushback you receive are an expression of how they feel and their inability to work through their feelings in that moment.
Let’s start with the basics: cooperation might be difficult if a kid isn’t getting enough sleep, is hungry or thirsty, or is overstimulated. When kids have an unmet need, they’re bound to feel their emotions strongly. The intensity of those feelings can often be reduced by meeting those quick needs. But what about when those needs are met, and the tantrums or pushback are ongoing? It’s important to be aware of how your feelings in the moment can impact how you react to your child. Our feelings of frustration, disappointment, or burnout can leave us feeling resentful—which often comes across in our posture, tone, or word choices.
It’s time to throw out the old script when interacting with young kids (7 and under). In those moments when your child isn’t cooperating, it’s helpful to try new ways to communicate and to get your child engaged.
1. Enter your child’s world – be playful!
Being silly and playful comes naturally to your child, and you can get your kids to buy into the process of boring or unfavorable tasks by creating some fun yourself. When you want your child to help pick up their Legos but they’re not ready to move on from playing, you can try saying, “Can we put all of the Legos into the bin before the timer goes off? Let’s go!” Then model for them the fun by starting it off. “Dad shoots—he scores!!!"
You can also be playful by making inanimate objects speak. When you’re ready to head into the cold and your young child isn’t wanting to put their cold gear on, you can say [in an imploring voice] “I’m a glove…is there a hand around here that I can cover?” For the 5-8 range, [in a deep voice] “I am one glove to rule them all! Anyone who puts me on becomes STRONGER from my power!”
Acting puzzled about simple tasks and allowing your kid to teach you the right way to do something can be a big hit. Your child will LOVE the playfulness and eagerly join you. “Does this sock go on my…hand? Head? Maybe ear? Oh my goodness, are you saying this goes on my foot?! Thanks for your help!”
It also may be helpful to use your imagination and pretend! “We are astronauts, let’s put on our seatbelts before we blast off! Takeoff in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1… BLASTOFF”
Parents can sometimes feel disconnected from their own sense of playfulness or feel shy or embarrassed about appearing silly. It can feel a little awkward at first, and you may have to reread examples before heading into scenarios that have been problematic in the past. Interacting with kids through their language—play—allows them to see you as fun, exciting, and relatable. Most importantly, the parent-child connection gets stronger when parents adopt new measures to reduce the number of power struggles that occur. Kids are far more willing to cooperate in moments when they feel seen, safe, supported, and understood overall.
2. Offer a choice to your child.
If your child is struggling with transitioning to the next activity, try offering a choice that allows them to enter into the decision-making process and gives them back some power. For example, they might not get to decide when their time with a videogame ends, but they can choose which activity they engage in next. This is also a safe opportunity to empower your children! They see they have choices and they can practice making decisions that meet their needs.
“Do you want to brush your teeth or change into your pjs before we read a book?”
It’s important to remember to not turn choices into implied threats by having one choice be unreasonably inequal to force your kid to make the choice you want (e.g., “Do you want to get in the car or do you want to get no presents for your birthday tomorrow?”). Instead choose options that are acceptable for the both of you (“Do you want to get in the car like we’re about to chase after a bad guy, or do you want me to help you get in the seat like I’m your robot butler? [in robot voice] ‘SIR, YOU NEED YOUR SEAT-BELT. ALLOW RO-BOT TO BUCKLE SEAT-BELT.’”).
3. Recognize and praise progress, then ask for completion of tasks.
“WOAH! I love it; I can see a coat and a backpack where they’re supposed to be! Phew. Just the shoes are left on the mat and this entryway will be BEAUTIFUL!”
Mentioning what has been accomplished before saying what still needs to be done allows your child to know their efforts are recognized and appreciated. Gentle reminders of rules can be received better than statements that can feel like critiques or demands.
4. Describe how you feel.
It can be difficult to pause and reflect on how you feel in the moment but describing how you feel to your child can teach them to do the same. This is also an opportunity to set limits with your child.
“I don’t like being hit with the toy.”
“I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed with all the toys on the floor. Let’s work together to put away the puzzles before you take another thing out. What’s that puzzle saying?! [in a sad voice] ‘My puzzle body feels so hungry… if only someone would feed me unicorn puzzle pieces until I’m full and burping!”
Sharing your feelings allows for the opportunity for your child to take other’s feelings into consideration. Practicing self-awareness and fostering empathy to know how their actions can impact others is an important life skill that parents can model.
Important reminder: When expressing your feelings of frustration or anger use “I” language and not “you” language (e.g., “I don’t like ___,” “I feel ___,” “I’m worried ___," instead of “You have to ___,” “You’re being ___,” or “You’re making me ___.”) When you use the word “I,” you express your feelings in a way that doesn’t place blame, which reduces the chance of your child becoming defensive.
If you find yourself outright angry, it’s okay to pause and regroup by reflecting on what you want your kid to know or learn in the situation. Recognize that kids don’t learn lessons while their parents are angry, so avoid lecturing and tuck the ideas for the lesson away for later on when everyone is cooled off. Practice feeling recognition and self-care (“I’m feeling frustrated so I’m going to take a break/get a glass of water/get your brother ready to go. You can put your pants on or pick out your shirt and I’ll be back in three minutes.”).