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Listening: How to get your child to listen

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Profile view of girl listening to her mother


Getting your child to listen, can seem like one of those frustrating parenting tasks, but if it is any consolation, you aren’t alone.

It’s a common problem that often causes parents to seek help from Dr Becky Kennedy, clinical psychologist behind the popular parenting Instagram page Dr Becky at Good Inside.

“What we first need to realise is that when we talk about listening, what we are really talking about is asking children to do something that they really don’t want to do,” says Dr Kennedy.

“Why don’t children cooperate or comply is what we are actually talking about.”

Dr Kennedy suggests that the best way to understand why children don’t cooperate is to understand why we, at times, don’t cooperate or comply.

“Often, we don’t feel close to the person who asked us, or we don’t feel respected in that moment, or we don’t feel seen,” she explains.

“We need to feel connected in that relationship before we cooperate with that request.”

Dr Kennedy adds that parents also need to accept that our children won’t always do everything we want them to.

“If we move out of that module of parenting control and see our children as independent people, we will be able to understand that we have to tolerate some amount of lack of cooperation from them.”

Instead of seeing your child’s resistance as them being a bad kid see in their resistance that something deeper is going on and take the time to talk about it with your child to understand the actual problem.
Dr Becky Kennedy

How to get children to cooperate

Dr Kennedy explains that there are five strategies parents can use to get their child to listen and cooperate.

1. “First, connect before you ask,” she recommends.

“For example, before you ask your child to take a bath, see what your child is doing in their world: ‘You are working so hard on that block tower, it looks amazing, it’s time to take that bath now, maybe you’ll have more time later to keep going’.

“It really changes the approach because we form that connection, being seen, before making a request.”

2. The second strategy is humour.

“Humour is really important for listening: ‘Oh no, your listening ears are lost, oh wait, they are under the couch, oh no, that’s not them, ah, here they are, now let’s go take that bath’,” explains Dr Becky.

3. The third strategy is making the request simple.

“Sometimes we overload our children with information and they just can’t process it all,” she says.

“For example: ‘Take your coat off, put your shoes away, wash your hands.’ Versus: ‘Please put your shoes in the cupboard.’

“So simple. One thing at a time.”

4. Empower your child with choices, is the fourth strategy.

“For example, ‘We have to leave Sylvia’s house, it’s almost time to go home, would you like to leave now or in five minutes?’, or, ‘It’s time to get dressed, do you want to wear your red shirt or your green shirt today?’,” says Dr Kennedy.

“Help your child feel some agency in the request.”

5. Finally, Dr Kennedy suggests role reversal for when your child is going through a not-listening stage.

“Have a couple of minutes in your day when you can reverse the roles,” she explains.

“If we let our children be in control, they are more likely to listen to us when we are in the position of dictating a request.

“For example, ‘For the next five minutes you are in charge, you tell me anything you want from me, I hope you don't make it silly, I hope you don't make me roll around or walk backwards everywhere.’

“Again, be really silly and playful to make it fun.”

How to stay calm

It can really empty your patience bucket when children don’t listen.

Dr Kennedy provides some strategies on how to get through those tough moments when nothing seems to be working.

“First off, set up your own expectations,” she suggests.

“For example, ‘my child is not always going to cooperate’.”

Dr Kennedy also emphasises that it isn’t about listening, but about cooperating and complying and that resistance your child is displaying is actually an important life lesson for them, even if it is incredibly inconvenient for you in that moment.

“Remind yourself that you actually don’t want your child to comply with everything that every person they meet in their life demands of them,” she says.

“So, it is important that they develop a little resistance here and there with you, their parent.”

The second strategy is coming up with a mantra to get you through those frustrating moments.

“For example, ‘Nothing is wrong with my child, nothing is wrong with me, I can cope with this’,” explains Dr Kennedy.

“A mantra is always helpful to regulate some of the anger we feel with our child.”

Finally, Dr Kennedy reminds parents to remember that listening and cooperating is all about connection.

She says that if your child is resisting a request, for example, not wanting to put their shoes on to leave the house or not wanting to take a bath, take the time to understand what is truly going on for them.

“Instead of seeing your child’s resistance as them being a bad kid,” she explains, “see in their resistance that something deeper is going on and take the time to talk about it with your child to understand the actual problem.”

Dr Kennedy completed her B.A. in Psychology and Human Development, Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude, from Duke University, and her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University. She has trained at Bellevue Hospital and Mt. Sinai Hospital. Dr Kennedy presents a weekly podcast providing parenting guidance called Good Inside with Dr Becky.