Why Won't My Kid Listen To Me!?!
My kid doesn't listen! I’m trying to help them! I just told them what would happen if they did that!?!
Sound familiar? We’ve all been there. The pure frustration a child can bring out in a parent who is trying to help and teach them can make anyone scream.
Most of the parents I talk with say 'my kid doesn't listen to me'. They wish their kid was a better listener because life feels harder when their kid doesn't listen.
Because a lot of them feel like their teaching and advice are falling on deaf ears. And guess what, it is.
Because we love our children so immensely and intensely we want to spare them from mistakes we have made, or know they are going to make. So we tell them what to do, we lecture them when they have done wrong, we try to pack their little brains with the ways of the world so they can be more successful and avoid mistakes.
So why doesn’t it work? Why do kids tune parents out?
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Now let's talk about why your kid doesn't listen to you.
IT ALL COMES DOWN TO THE TIMING
As parents, when do we spend most of our time teaching and reinforcing ideas with our children? If you are like most parents, the answer is when they have done something wrong or are in need of correction. And it makes sense, right? It is the perfect opportunity to open the conversation and be able to show the child, with actual real life consequences, why what you are teaching them is so important.
But what if I told you the actual answer is the exact opposite?
That teaching your child when they have not done anything wrong is actually the ideal time for them to learn. And instead of teaching them what not to do, focus on what you want them to do.
What if I went one more step further and told you that when your child makes a mistake, you completely skip the “teaching opportunity/lecture time” and just let them ride out the natural consequences, saving your teaching for a few hours down the road?
Completely counter intuitive? Absolutely! But does it work? Absolutely!
If you are like most parents, you are going to need some convincing that this approach is actually going to work. So here is where the brain science comes in.
When we do something wrong, as an adult or child, we have a physiological reaction to it. Our heart rate may go up, we may start to sweat, we may become flushed, and of course we experience a whole range of emotions on top of the physical changes. Anger, fear, shame, embarrassment are just a few of the emotions both adults and kids experience when they make mistakes.
Why does our body do these things? Because at that moment in time our stress response has been activated in our body by a tiny part of the brain called the amygdala. It is our body’s natural response and it is its way of protecting us. But while our body is trying to protect us, it is setting off a chain of reactions that directly affect our ability to communicate and interpret information.
So what exactly is happening?
When a stress response is triggered, we temporarily lose all executive functioning skills, because the amygdala says that resources are needed in other places of the brain/body. So what does that mean? It means a lot of critical skills go offline including self-control, working memory and flexibility to name a few. In plain English, that means during a stress response we literally cannot control ourselves or remember what happens to us during that time let alone learn and retain new information.
Ever ask your child why they did what they did in a moment of intense emotion and get a ‘I don’t know’ in response? Or spend your time imparting a lot of wisdom and rationale while your child is losing it only to ask them to tell you what you said and be met with a blank stare? Yep, that’s the result of the stress response being triggered. It’s not your fault, but it’s not your kid’s fault either. It’s how all our bodies were built to react.
So now what? You now know why your kid doesn't listen, and that they are not really doing it just to make you angry and frustrated, but you want to know what you can do about it, right?
Are you ready to try a new way?
Here are 7 tips for becoming a more effective parent so your kid actually starts to listen to you.
1. Fight the urge to lecture
When you child has messed up and you want to lecture them or say ‘I told you this would happen’, bite your tongue. It is a really hard thing to do, but after a few times it becomes easier so stick with it. If it helps, just leave the room for a little while. You can tell them you will talk about it later or you can simply remove yourself if you feel like talking might lead to words that should not be spoken.
2. Help your child navigate their emotions
If your child is having a hard time processing the mistake or calming down, make sure to help them. Remember, none of us are born with coping techniques, we all need to learn them and some kids need more help than others. Focus on reflecting back what your child is feeling, not what they did. For example, ‘you feel really bad you broke something’ or ‘you must have felt really angry to hit another person’. You are not excusing the behavior, but helping to put words to strong emotions so your child can move past them and out of their stress response.
3. Open a conversation and then just listen
When your child is calm and at least 20 minutes has passed, bring up the incident, but start with asking how they were feeling. For example, ‘You must have felt really trapped if you needed to sneak out of the house to be with your friends, will you tell me what else you were feeling?’ And then, just listen. Again, you do not need to accept their behavior, simply reflect back what you hear them saying. For example, ‘You felt I was being too strict, you don’t understand why I said no when other parents said yes’.
4. Model how to communicate
After your child has their say and you have reflected back their statements to make sure they have felt heard, it is now time for your say. Start with your feelings. It helps kids to remember you are a human being and that you are coming out of a place of love, even if they feel you are being unfair. For example, ‘I felt really scared when you did not call me to tell me where you were. I was worried about you.’ Or ‘I felt really angry when I told you not to play ball in the house and then you did it anyway.’
5. In order to be effective, keep lessons short
Allow your child to make mistakes and feel the consequences of those mistakes. The more natural the consequence, meaning it logically comes as a result of what they have done, the better. Natural consequencest really helps reinforce the lesson without you having to do anything at all. If you do feel the need to reinforce the lesson or perhaps there was no natural consequence other than getting caught, remember to keep the lesson short. For example, ‘I felt really sad when I found my money missing from my wallet. In this family we do not take things from others without asking first. I expect you to return the money you owe me.’
6. Set your child up for success
Believe your child will do better the next time. It is true what they say that we live up to the expectations placed upon us, even if they are negative. If you expect your child to mess up again or treat them like they are going to, they will feel more compelled to fulfill the prophecy you have laid out for them. But if you add ‘I know you will do better next time’ or ‘tomorrow is another day to try again’ when you are talking with your child, you are showing faith in them. You are acknowledging they made a mistake and that they are not ruled by that one mistake, but that they can learn from it. You are teaching them resiliency and how to repair and recover from mistakes.
7. Love can heal all
End with an ‘I love you’, even if you are still mad. Regardless of whether the infraction was big or small, kids need to know it is okay to make mistakes and that they are still loved even if they make mistakes. It may seem obvious to you, but it is not always obvious to kids who think the world lives and dies by them. Mistakes will happen. Sometimes really big ones. But if you remind your child that you will always love them, they will always work to do better the next time, because it is the desire of every child to feel loveable.
Try the above tips for 3-4 weeks and then drop me a line to let me know how it’s going. I always love hearing about successes!
Remember to give yourself a little grace because you are trying something new and you won’t always remember to follow the tips. That’s okay, we are all human. And your children will always give you another opportunity to practice again!
NOTE: The above tips are meant to help the majority of parents. Children who struggle with certain disorders, high sensitivity or trauma may need a different approach that is individualized to their needs and how they respond best. If you would like to discuss personalized options for your child, we invite you to schedule a free 30 minute consultation with us so we can tailor tips that would work best for your family.