Children/Teens/Parenting: How to talk to your kids so they will actually listen

Communicating effectively with your kids can be a challenge. Especially when you are juggling many responsibilities as a parent, feeling like your kids just won’t listen is a major source of stress. While it often seems like children are intentionally defiant and rebellious, most of the time you and your kids are just doing your best with the tools you have. Practicing both emotional regulation and some new communication skills can go a long way in achieving a greater sense of peace in your home. 

Before beginning a potentially contentious conversation with your kids, it is important to take care of yourself first. If you are feeling intense emotions such as anger, frustration, or anxiety, it will be much harder to communicate in a way that your kids will be receptive to. When you notice these emotions, take a few moments to calm yourself. Even a few deep, mindful breaths can go a long way. This can even be done in front of your kids! Demonstrating to children the appropriate way to deal with intense emotions is an important life skill and great modeling to do as a parent. Your kids will see that you are only human and also subject to the challenging emotions that they are likely beginning to grapple with. 

Next, consider the context of the situation and the emotional state of your child. If you see that they are experiencing intense emotions, this will greatly reduce their ability to hear what you have to say. This will also make it more likely that they will either shut down or lash out if they do not like how the conversation is going. Asking them how they are feeling and validating that emotion will help your kids see that you care to understand their perspective. This can also help kids develop a larger emotion vocabulary. Being able to name what they are feeling is really important in helping kids learn emotion regulation and communicate effectively. Similarly, gently suggesting they take a break or guiding them through a few rounds of deep breaths can be helpful. Some parents also see success creating a calming corner; an area their kids can go when they are feeling overwhelmed. This is typically a quiet area with comforting toys, books, or pillows; any sensory activity your child may find helpful when upset. Many parents fear that “indulging” their child’s intense emotions will only reinforce them and teach their child to act out when they want attention. The opposite is in fact true. It is very important to validate the emotional experience of children so that they can learn to trust their feelings. Often when children do not get enough validation or support, they learn that they can only get the help they need by expressing extreme emotion. Similarly, when children are told that they are overreacting or that they should “get over it”, they often grow up to feel ashamed of their emotions and do not know how to express them. 

When speaking with your children, it is helpful to use a calm, clear tone, making sure to use words that they will understand. When stating a rule or asking your child to do something, it is helpful if your ask is very explicit and clear. Be mindful of any passive communication as this is often confusing for kids. For example, instead of saying something like, “It would be nice if you helped me clean up once in a while”, saying “Could you please do the dishes after dinner tonight?” will be much more effective. This is especially important when stating a rule or boundary. Children are still developing their executive functioning skills so it is really helpful if they know very explicitly what is and is not allowed, when, where, in what context, etc. Additionally, kids generally want to understand the reasons behind limits being set. Transparency can be used to create a sense of trust between you and your child. When you explain why it is important that they follow rules (generally for their safety and wellbeing) they will be more likely to cooperate because they will know you are not just trying to cause them strife! 

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