I know how frustrating it is when you want your child to do something – or not to do something – and you can’t even get their attention. What you’re saying is falling on deaf ears. You try different ways of saying it, but it seems to make no difference. Your child just zones you out. You don’t want to get angry, but you can feel your patience wearing thin.
I hear you. I really do. It’s exasperating and you want a solution that doesn’t involve threats or shouting.
Let’s look at at a couple of examples:
- You want to go out with your daughter, but she refuses to stop playing Lego.
- Your son’s insisting on throwing a ball around the room where his brother is practising piano.
- You’ve asked your daughter to wear a cycle helmet – but she won’t put it on.
Our point of view
In situations like these, we parents tend to feel our point of view is very reasonable. Your child has to stop playing Lego, because you’re going out. It’s unreasonable for your son to disrupt his brother’s piano practice by throwing a ball around. And, naturally, safety dictates that a cycle helmet needs to be worn.
All very reasonable…. from an adult perspective.
From a child’s point of view, things look very different.
Your child’s behaviour has it’s own impeccable logic, even if it’s not always obvious to us.
Their behaviour always fulfils a need.
- Your Lego-playing-child is fulfilling her need for creative play. She is totally absorbed in creating a scenario.
- Your ball-playing-child is a bit bored and he’s trying to get his brother’s attention.
- And your daughter who doesn’t want to put on a cycle helmet – she finds the helmet uncomfortable. It grips her head a bit too tightly.
These points of view don’t go away when we start talking to children. They are still there, dictating behaviour. Typically a power struggle between parent and child ensues, in which each side fights their corner.
What can we do?
In my experience, the most effective way to solve these situations is this:
- Stop whatever you’re doing and put your agenda aside;
- Listen to your child and show understanding for their point of view;
- Transition elegantly to what you have to say and problem-solve with your child.
By doing this, you overcome the gulf between your point of view and their point of view.
Children start to experience that you’re on their side.
They feel understood.
As a result they want to listen to you.
This can happen in a heartbeat.
All it takes is for children to experience that you want to see things through their eyes.
I’m going to break this down into three steps:
1) Stop whatever you’re doing and put your agenda aside
Stopping whatever you’re doing or whatever you’re trying to communicate is a crucial first step. You can’t skip it out, as the following example illustrates:
This morning I was trying to build a fire in the hearth, when my son came in. He was angry that I hadn’t woken him earlier, because he had a lot of homework to get done.
I tried to listen to him while I continued to get the fire going. The fire-building wasn’t working very well and I continued to focus on it. Meanwhile my son was expressing his frustration and getting more and more worked up. Although I was saying empathetic things, he just got angrier and angrier.
The reason: I had forgotten Step 1!
Finally I realised my mistake and went to wash my hands. I then sat down beside him, focussed on him and he calmed down after only a few moments.
If we want children to listen to us, we first of all need to show them that we are able to listen to them. We need to put everything else on hold. When I stopped focussing on the fire my son finally felt I was taking his problem seriously.
It doesn’t matter how unreasonable what they have to say or express appears to us. Making space for their point of view is the first step towards solving the situation.
2) Show understanding for what they’re doing or feeling
The next step is to actively show understanding for whatever is going on for your child. Because, if your child isn’t listening to you, something else is occupying their mind. In my son’s case it was the mountain of homework.
Whatever it is, make this issue your topic of conversation. After I sat down with my son this morning, I spent some time listening to him while he told me in detail how much homework was required for each subject – and how little time there was left to do it.
Now let’s return to our earlier examples. This is the kind of thing you can do in the following scenarios:
- Watch your Lego-playing-child and discover what she’s doing. Then chat to her about it. She’ll love it when you talk about what she’s up to.
- With your ball-playing child, show that you understand why he’s doing what he’s doing. Express empathy, so he feels you’re on his side.
- With your helmet-refuser, I’d recommend getting down to her level and having a good old look at what’s bothering her about the helmet. Take her objections really seriously and share her concern.
3) Transition elegantly to your agenda and problem-solve with your child
By following steps 1 and 2 above you’ll have connected with your child. You’ll have got their attention and they’ll be feeling supported by you.
This is a good moment to give them some light-touch information about timing/space/safety – or whatever it is. They’ll be open to listening.
Then you can invite them to do what you had in mind – such as put on their coat, play ball in another room or try the helmet again, after a further adjustment.
Or, if more thought is needed, you can go through some options with your child. By working out how to solve the situation together, you give them the possibility of feeling some ownership of the solution. With ownership, they’re more likely to actually do it willingly. You’ll also be coaching them in useful and transferable problem-solving skills.
In my case this morning, I simply continued to listen while my son solved the situation for himself, by sketching out a manageable timetable in his mind.
These steps form part of my radically loving approach to parenting, which is designed to help you deepen your relationship with your child, grow the sense of trust between you and to support your child to listen better, so life gets easier.
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