When you tell your child to go brush their teeth or put their shoes on, do they listen the first time? What about the second time? For most parents, the honest answer is no. We often resort to repeated requests and some form of voice raising or negotiating to get our kids to complete basic to-dos, even when they’re an expected part of the routine. It’s a terribly frustrating cycle that can leave parents questioning their words, tone, and volume.
What should you say when your child isn’t listening? We asked child behavior specialist and family interventionist Vanessa Kahlon and the answer is not as much as you may think. In Kahlon’s first book, Shut Up And Parent, she explains that parents actually need to talk less to avoid yelling, and in her newest book, How to Do Parenting With Confidence, she advocates that listening is the key to building strong, confident relationships with kids. (So yep, still less talking.)
But we all know kids don’t magically get dressed, buckle up, do their homework, practice the piano, or basically any other thing we ever ask them without direction or redirection. Here’s where the right words can make a huge difference. These are the catchphrases, the one liners, the clever quips Kahlons says every parent needs to know, memorize, and keep at the tip of their tongue.
“Can you do it yourself or do I need to help you?”
According to Kahlon, this is the best and only response you should use when you ask your kids to do something and they take no action. “When you ask your child twice, the third time you need to help them listen or come or whatever the thing is,” she says. Kids don’t actually want their parents’ help, so the idea of you doing something with them or physically bringing them from one place to another is motivating.
Consistency is also key. “You have to stick to a schedule and use consistent language. When a child doesn’t know what’s going to happen next they can become anxious,” says Kahlon. For daily routines, creating a visual schedule that kids can be in charge of checking helps, as does building in extra time to get things done or get out the door.
“Today is my way, tomorrow is your way.”
“Providing a child with choices can prevent them from feeling like you’re telling them what to do all the time. But Kahlon says even when parents feel it’s appropriate to be flexible, they need to remain in control. “There’s too much stress for a child when they’re in control,” she adds.
Letting your child decide to brush their teeth before putting on pajamas, for example, may not be a big deal, but if your child starts to ask for a drink of water first or otherwise attempts to control the situation, parents need to reinforce what’s a choice and what’s not a choice. This phrase prevents an escalated state of control.
“Let me know when you’re ready to ________.”
When your child is not listening, not talking or not talking nicely, Kahlon suggests making eye contact while delivering this phrase, then walking away. “You always have to walk away,” she says. “Kids need time to think about their actions and feelings, and if parents keep talking they don’t have the chance to reflect..”
Before you walk away, Kahlono says a gentle touch (not a tap, which can be mistaken for aggressive) on the shoulder can help parents re-engage them. When your child is ready, parents should do more listening and less talking. Similarly there should be more emphasis on your child’s revised actions and less emphasis on the words ‘I’m sorry.’
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