5 Empowering Ways to Get Your Kids to Listen

Having a hard time getting your children to follow directions? Me too. So my friends and I decided to try our own group therapy courtesy of a classic best-selling parenting book.

I'll never forget when I crashed headfirst into my most frustrating parenting problem to date: My daughters were ignoring me. I could tell them five times to do anything—get dressed, turn off the TV, brush their teeth—and they either didn't hear me or didn't listen. So I'd tell them five more times, louder and louder. It seemed the only way I could inspire my then 6-year-old and 4-year-old to action was if I yelled like one of The Real Housewives of New Jersey and then threatened to throw their blankies away.

This behavior didn't demonstrate the kind of parent I wanted to be. But their inability to listen or even acknowledge my husband and me made us feel powerless. While walking through Target one Saturday, I heard no fewer than five parents say some variation of, "If you don't start listening, we're walking out of this store right now!"

I recognized that at least part of the problem was me. After much lamenting about my unhoned parenting skills, I got lucky: A friend's mom mentioned what she called "the Bible" on the subject: How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. When I checked it out, I saw an accompanying DIY workshop for $130. Granted, the authors are parents, not child psychologists or toddler whisperers. But the book was a national best-seller, and parents continue to host workshops using the authors' ideas, so I thought it might be worth a try.

To see if their advice still held up, I wrangled four equally desperate mom buddies and ordered the workshop. I got two CDs and a guide with directions for leading the group. We met every Tuesday night in my living room for seven weeks, spending much of our 90-minute sessions talking about our struggles with listening-challenged kids.

We followed along as actors played out scenarios on the CD, did some role-playing of our own, and completed weekly homework assignments, such as reading parts of How to Talk and Liberated Parents, Liberated Children, by the same authors, and then applying our new communication skills IRL.

Here's what we learned about improving our communication so that our kids are more likely to listen, courtesy of our How to Talk workshop and informal group therapy sessions.

Say It With a Single Word

Say it with a single word is a tactic to keep your requests brief. It fights the urge to offer lengthy explanations that often make parents feel exasperated and fatigued.

The situation

At the time, my daughters had only one assigned chore: to carry their plates to the sink when they were done eating. Still, not a night went by when I didn't need to tell them to do it, sometimes three times. But, even that didn't guarantee they would. The worst part? I'd usually end up taking care of their plates, myself.

The old way

After they ignored my repeated commands, I'd sit my kids down and preach for 10 minutes about how I wasn't their servant, and our house wasn't a restaurant.

The better way

Kids usually know what they're supposed to do; they just need some simple reminding. "They'll tune you out when you go on and on," Faber told me. "Instead, try just one word to jog their memory."

The result

After dinner one night, all I said was "plates." At first, the girls looked at me as if I were speaking in another language. But a second later, they picked them up and headed for the kitchen.

After roughly a month of reinforcement, I no longer needed to say anything; they were doing it automatically. "Teeth!" worked equally well for getting them to brush, as did "shoes" to replace my old morning mantra: "Find your shoes and put them on; find your shoes and put them on."

And when I heard my oldest screaming, "Give me that!" I simply said, "Nice words" (OK, that's two words). I practically fainted when she said, "Would you please give that to me?

talking to child
Jenny Risher

Empower Your Kid

Empowering your child to listen can begin with a change in your mindset. For example, instead of issuing commands, provide information. Kids, like adults, naturally want to know why something is necessary. Giving this information can encourage kids to comply.

The situation

My friend Michele had just served lunch when, as was her habit, her then 2-year-old jumped off her chair. Then she climbed back on, turned around, stood up, and stomped on the cushion.

The old way

When her child wouldn't respond to a patient, "You need to sit still," Michele would get annoyed and say something like, "How hard is it to understand? You must sit down!" Her daughter would cry but still not sit. Ultimately, she'd get a time-out, which didn't change her behavior.

The better way

State the facts instead of constantly issuing commands. "Who doesn't rebel against constant orders?" asks Faber. (I know I do.) Kids aren't robots programmed to do our bidding. They need to exercise their free will, which is why they often do exactly the opposite of what we ask them to do.

The trick is to turn your directive into a teaching moment. So instead of, "Put that milk away," you might say: "Milk spoils when it's left out." This approach tells a child, "I know that when you have all the information, you'll do the right thing,'" Faber explains.

The result

The next time Michele's toddler played jungle gym at mealtime, Michele took a calming breath and then said, "Honey, chairs are meant for sitting." Her child smiled, sat down, and then started eating. "That [had] never happened before," Michele reported. She still had to remind her daughter now and then, but in the end, her toddler began to listen.

The technique applies to other situations as well. For example, rather than saying, "Stop touching everything," Michele began pointing out, "Those delicate things can break very easily." Ditto for "Legos belong in the green bin so you can find them the next time you want to play with them" and "Unflushed toilets get stinky."

Give Your Child a Choice

Kids like choices because it helps them feel in control of a situation. And who doesn't want to have a say in how to do something—even if it's a little thing?

The situation

Three days after our final session, Joan took her kids to Orlando. At the Magic Kingdom, she handed them hats to shield the sun. Her 6-year-old put hers on willingly. But, her almost-5-year-old refused.

The old way

"I'd try to persuade him to cooperate," Joan says. But, inevitably, she'd end up shouting, "If you don't put it on, you can't go on any more rides." Then he'd bawl his eyes out, and no one would have any fun.

The better way

Offer your child choices. "Threats and punishment don't work," Faber explains on one of the workshop CDs. "Rather than feeling sorry for not cooperating, a child tends to become even more stubborn." But making them part of the decision can result in them making choices that are acceptable to you.

The result

Joan left it up to her son: "You can put your hat on now or after you sit out the next ride." He still wouldn't comply. "But after he missed out on Peter Pan's Flight, I said, 'Here's your hat,' and he put it right on," Joan says.

State Your Expectations

Stating expectations can help ensure everyone is on the same page. In turn, it can prevent conflicts before they even occur.

The situation

Amy let her kids turn on the TV before they left for school. Then, after one show was over, she'd take her 4-year-old to get dressed while her 7-year-old kept watching. But when it was her older child's turn to get ready, she'd whine, "Just 10 more minutes. Please? Pleeeeeeeaaase!"

The old way

Amy would yell: "No, you've watched enough. That's it." Her child would complain some more. Finally, Amy would yell, "I said no!" Then, after more begging, she'd remind her daughter that she already had more TV time than her sibling and tell her she was being ungrateful.

The better way

Let your kids know your plan ahead of time. For example, Amy could tell her child something like this: "After you've brushed your teeth and are dressed and ready to go, you can watch a little more TV while I get your brother dressed. That way, you'll be on time for school."

The result

The first time Amy tried this tactic, her child turned off the TV without saying a word. But the second morning, she refused and started bellyaching again. Amy quickly realized she hadn't reminded her child of the plan in advance this time.

So the following morning, she restated the expectation. Again, success. She finds the strategy equally effective for other situations ("No starting new games until the one you've just played is put away").

Name Their Feelings

Naming a child's feelings is validating and can diffuse or prevent conflicts. In addition, it helps kids identify their emotions, which is a critical skill in learning to manage emotions.

The situation

Carrie's 6-year-old daughter was happily blowing bubbles with a friend. Suddenly, she stormed into the room, wailing that her friend wasn't giving her a turn.

The old way

"I'd say something like, 'There's no reason to cry over this,'" Carrie says. So what would her daughter do? The opposite of what Carrie wanted—cry more and likely ruin the rest of the playdate.

The better way

Parents need to listen too. "Everyone wants to know they've been heard and understood," Faber says. Telling a child to stop crying sends the message that their feelings don't matter. Kids often cry (or whine, yell, or stomp) because they can't communicate why they're upset or don't know how to deal with the emotion. "You need to give them the words to express it," Faber says.

The result

Next time, Carrie looked her daughter in the eye and described what she thought her daughter was feeling: "You seem really frustrated!" Her child stared at her in surprise and then announced, "I am." Carrie held her tongue to keep from giving advice ("You need to…"), defending her friend ("She deserves a turn too"), or getting philosophical ("That's life").

Instead, she said, "Oh." Her child kept talking: "I wish I had two bottles of bubbles." Carrie asked her daughter if she had any ideas to make the situation fairer. Her child suggested they take turns. Carrie then piggybacked off that by suggesting they use a kitchen timer, and her daughter explained the plan to her friend. Everyone wound up happy.

"It's hard to stop yourself from saying too much," says Carrie. She's right. Phrases like "You never listen to me" and "How many times do I have to tell you?" become ingrained in our brains.

The Takeaway

During the workshop, my friends and I realized that it would take a bit of practice to stop defaulting to the same, unhelpful and start trying out new tactics. But that's the entire point: To change how we talk to our kids so they not only understand what we're trying to say but want to listen.

Not all of Faber and Mazlish's advice rang true for us. For example, their suggestion to post a to-do list on the fridge so we wouldn't have to keep reminding our kids of their responsibilities, for instance, didn't pan out (mainly because I had to keep reminding my girls to look at the note!).

But other tips truly got our kids to start paying attention—and, better yet, got us to stop yelling at them. Carrie summed up our collective reaction by the end: "This really works!"

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