5 Easy Ways to Help Spirited Kids Listen
The age-old question: How do we get our children to listen to us? I'm here to give you my child therapist-approved, defiant kiddo-tested, tried-and-true strategies.
1. Give transition time.
Children are busy. They are in the middle of a tv show or a computer game. They are in the middle of homework or playing with a friend. Just like you, they hate having someone barge into their day and tell them they have to do something, right now, immediately.
Give them a warning so they can wrap-up what they are doing, or at least emotionally prepare themselves to not be able to finish it. "In 5 minutes it's going to be time to do chores." Depending on how easily your child handles transitions, you might need to give several warnings, at 20 minutes until the change in activity, 15 minutes until, 10, 5, 2. Kids who struggle with transitions also benefit from a predictable routine and a daily schedule with pictures. You might be surprised at how well this improves their listening.
2. Always follow through.
If you want your child to listen to you the first time you make a request, don't make the same request 20 times before you follow through. You are teaching them that after 20 times of hearing your request, then they have to listen. Let me be real with you. Often times, we as adults are lazy, and that's the heart of the problem. We want our child to take out the trash the first time we ask, but we aren't prepared to totally drop what we are doing and offer support to get the task done. Instead, we nag our child, asking several times, our voice getting louder and more shrill until we are shaming or scaring them, or until we just give up and do it ourselves. Defiant kids need hand-over-hand support with following directions. So don't ask unless you have the time and emotional energy to follow through.
3. Use a confident, low-pitched tone of voice. (Please don't yell.)
Sure, sometimes yelling "works." It scares and shames kids into doing what we want. It gets the task done. But at what price? Yelling damages your relationship with your kids; it makes them fear and resent you. Is it normal as a parent to sometimes yell? Sure, but it's not a great habit.
One important way to use your voice when kids aren't listening is to deepen your voice and use a strong, confident and low-pitched tone to communicate. Louder isn't better here, but deeper is. A shrill, high-pitched tone of voice communicates fearfulness and anxiety- the opposite of what we are going for. We need our kids to see us as stable, strong leaders.
4. Use touch and proximity.
Calling out from the kitchen, "Do your homework," and then going back to your task, can give your child the impression that you aren't really able to follow through. You are too busy to give a consequence or make it happen. Heck, you were too busy to even walk to the living room to tell them to do their homework.
It can help to be in the same room with your child when you give them a task. Give them real eye contact and full attention. Increase proximity and touch when your child isn't listening. The idea is that she needs your help to listen and she needs to know you are available and able to help.
Often all a child needs in order to know that you are going to follow through, is for you to wordlessly walk over to them, confidently and lovingly take them by the hand, and lead them to where you want them to go. Putting your arm around their shoulder and giving a squeeze can be helpful in communicating, "I'm here to help you get this done. I really mean it, and I'll be following through to make sure this happens."
5. Use time-frames and natural, logical consequences.
If everything is becoming a power struggle, or when you use proximity and touch, it backfires, try using time-frames instead. First, explain the directive and the consequence for choosing not to follow it. For example, "Son, I want you to unload the dishwasher. If you choose not to do this, you will lose 30 minutes of screen-time." Pick a reasonable, logical consequence that is also meaningful to your child. Give a time-frame for the decision. "I will give you 2 minutes to decide if you are going to unload the dishwasher or not. I'm going to set this timer so you know when your decision needs to be made. If you want to keep the screen-time, you'll need to get started on the task before the timer goes off. It's up to you."
Then set the timer and step out of the power struggle. Walk away, even. You have picked a consequence that matters to your child, and regardless of their choice, you need to drop it and emotionally detach yourself from the outcome. Sometimes they might actually choose the consequence to test out your follow-through, to assert their own power of choice, or even just to spite you. When that happens, simple follow-through on the consequence, swiftly and without emotion, and move on with your day, without holding a grudge. You are teaching your child that there are consequences to their choices, and that they can trust you to keep your word. You are increasing your power of influence in the long-term, even if this time they didn't listen.
The timer is an important element because it takes the pressure off your child and off you. It immediately makes things less heated and emotional. It's not a fight against you but a race against time. They are less likely to rebel, because you have given them a chance comply without "losing face." You have also given them some time to react to the news of possibly losing something they care about, time to reason it out on their own, and time to transition from what they were doing before. Kids desperately need this time. They aren't as skilled at these tasks as adults because they don't have years of practice. You will learn through experience with your child how much time is "enough time." And that amount of time may change as they become more masterful with transitions, reasoning things through, and coping with feeling frustrated.
If your child tries to argue with you or persuade you to change the terms of the deal or the consequences, just calmly repeat what you initially told them, set the timer, and ignore any further attempts to persuade you. "It's up to you," is an essential ingredient here, one that you can calmly repeat.