Prevention Parenting: Talking to Your Child so he/she Will Listen

As a parent or an adult that works with youth how many times have you said to a youth “Why Talking to your childcan’t you just listen!”  or how many times has a simple attempt at a conversation turned into a battle ending with your child’s feet stomping and door slamming?  If you are like most adults probably too many times to count.  For many years we have chalked communication breakdowns like these to adolescent hormones or “attitude”.  We know firsthand how frustrating communication can be with youth.  Learning how to talk with youth so that they will listen is a skill that takes time, patience and understanding.  Here are some tips to get you started on this journey:

Understand the Youth Brain:  Some key new research that helps to explain why we as adults have such trouble communicating with youth sometimes.  For example, researchers have recently discovered that not only do youth often mistake other people’s facial expressions of fear and/or surprise for anger they actually use different parts of their brain than adults do to differentiate others’ emotions. Youth actually use the part of the brain that is responsible for fear and anger to judge emotion; adults use the rational part of the brain.  This research helps explain why so many kids misinterpret our emotions which often result in changing a simple conversation to a yelling match.   This is also complicated by the fact that youth use the same part of their brain to respond to the misinterpretation which means the response is a “gut response” rather than a rational one. And finally the part of the brain which is responsible for changing the emotional response is not quite functioning yet.  So what you end up having is a youth who often misreads facial expressions and in turn jumps to conclusions and responds with a gut reaction and does not have the ability to turn on the brakes and think rationally. So it is important to remember that when a conversation with a youth seems to go out of control it’s not just because of his or her bad attitude, he or she is actually interpreting things differently.  Sharing this information with your child about what is going on with their brain can also help them to keep in mind that they often misinterpret other people and as a result overreact.

Try to begin statements with “I” instead of “you”: the word you often triggers defensiveness which is not a good way to start a conversation!  Instead of saying “You never listen to me!” try “I get really angry sometimes when you don’t listen to me”. This takes the focus away from what they did and instead focuses on how you feel.

Be Specific and Avoid Generalizations:  Stay away from phrases like: “You never make your bed”, avoid words like never and always.  Instead try saying “You forgot to make your bed this morning”.  When you are asking a child to do something it is important to be as specific as possible so they know exactly what and when you want them to do something.

Try Start Conversations In The Car:  The lack of direct eye contact in the car can make a youth more open to talking.

Stick To One Topic At A Time: Avoid statements like, “I want to talk to you about your chores and I also don’t appreciate your attitude lately”.  Instead have one conversation and then let the youth know that there are other things that your would like to discuss at a later time.  If the youth gets off track and mentions other issues let them know that you are willing to talk about that too but only after the issue at hand is resolved.

More Tips:

  • Be Honest
  • Don’t Interrupt
  • Don’t Get Angry
  • Step Into Your Child’s Shoes
  • Don’t Get Discouraged
  • Stay Available
  • Apologize if you need to
  • Call a time out if communication is badly off track
  • Don’t swear or use abusive language and don’t accept it
  • Don’t engage in name calling or put downs
  • Keep an open posture
  • Ask clarifying question