When A Child Doesn't Listen (and Batman doesn't clean)
When my son was two, my husband asked "Are you going to help me clean up this mess or what?" My son surveyed the scene and replied, "I'm going to have to say, or what."
Now he's seven and just last week, I asked him to clean up his room and he replied, "Batman doesn't clean. Alfred cleans. You're kind of like Alfred."
But for every cute gotta laugh at his tactics, there were so many more moments of frustration. Yelling. And despair for all the times my child just didn't listen. It's not that he didn't hear me. It's not always that I didn't have his attention. But what I was asking him to do. What needed to happen was just disregarded. Or battled against. Ignored. Or told no.
"How do I get my child to listen to me?"
It's beyond frustrating. It always seems to be the same things.
Get ready for bed. Get ready for school. Wash your hands. Clean up your mess.
Constantly reminding. Nagging. Wanting the same things but MY CHILD JUST WON"T LISTEN!
Our voice escalates because now it becomes us against them. As our anger escalates, we enter into our biological stress response and our child becomes the enemy. Where there has to be a winner and a loser. And dammit, he's going to do what I say. So I yell. Then I blame. If he'd listen I wouldn't have to yell. It's easier to discharge my pain over yelling by blaming him.
And I go to bed every night feeling like I failed again. Replaying each scene in my head. Knowing that things need to change. But I feel so stuck on this hamster wheel.
If only I could find a way to get him to listen. Sticker charts. Or consequences. Rewards. Nothing really seems to work. And I'm so exhausted from the YELLING over the same things. Again. And again. And again.
I can play this scenario over and over again in my head. Because this was me. The defiance. The disrespect. The attitude. Disregard for house rules.
Many times the thought rolled through my head "I'm not sure I can do this" and my boys were only 5 & 6.
I never considered I wasn't being the parent they wanted to listen to. That created an environment of listening.
That the only thing yelling was accomplishing was that I'd be yelling about the same things again tomorrow.
It wasn't until I changed my mindset. My approach. My beliefs. In my parenting. In how things "should" be.
To let go in order to build up.
Let's take a breathe together. And break some of this down a little bit into some actionable steps to begin to create some change in your family.
If "to hear" is defined as "to receive or become aware of sounds (like your voice!)". And listening is giving attention to those sounds. Because you can hear someone talking but if you aren't paying attention to their words, or their meaning, or what they're trying to tell you then you're not listening. So make sure your child's in fact giving you that attention. Don't assume they hear you. Or if they hear you that they're paying attention.
Don't start talking until you know you have your child's attention. Get down on his level. Touch him lightly. Look him in the eye. And wait. Until he looks up. If this isn't possible start with a simple "Can I ask you something?"
Focus on the connection before any direction or correction. If you have to repeat yourself, you don't have his attention. Refocus and try again.
The last part of listening is to heed or obey. This is the part that makes us want to bang our head against the wall. This is the part that makes almost every parent complain about their child not listening.
But if you child hears you. And is giving you attention. And is still not following through with your request. What might be happening?
~ maybe they don't understand your request but don't know how to ask for help. Or don't feel they can ask for help. Use fewer words to give instructions. Ask how you can support them to finish the task.
~ maybe they're simply prioritizing what they're doing over what you're asking. Maybe they don't see why their room must be cleaned right now. Or they're not hungry. Try to engage in cooperation. Make them feel part of the team. Keep your tone loving and encouraging. Offer choices that lead to the solution you're hoping for. "It's time to get ready for bed. Do you want bath first or teeth first tonight?"
~ maybe it's simply a matter of where he falls in development. Your 2.5 year old is going to see situations in terms of his own needs (and what he thinks he may need may be different from what your trying to accomplish). Or your 4 year old who desires acceptance and approval. Or your 7 year old who resents being told what to do.
~ maybe they don't feel they can complete the task good enough so they'd rather be yelled at than risk disappointing you. Be honest, have you ever asked your child to do something then criticized them or went behind them grumbling that you have to do everything or stood over them like a drill sergeant until the task was completed to your liking? A child can only behave as good as they feel about themselves and one of the universal tenets of development is the desire for acceptance and approval. You'll think it was only that once and they're fine. But that implicit message. That belief has been established. And until it's addressed your child will resist whatever you're asking that is in conflict with his belief about himself.
~ maybe they're getting distracted from your message. If you're emotional and yelling or losing your cool, your child is no longer paying any attention to what you're saying. They're headed into stress response time and their thinking brain is shutting down making them incapable of learning or thinking logically about all those consequences you're throwing around. Next time ask yourself, are you throwing fuel or water on the fire? You tell your kids to get in the car. 5 minutes later they're shoes still aren't on. The frustration is building. Yelling won't actually help them move any faster. Helping them move forward. Then brainstorm ways to help them get ready easier.
That brings us to setting up routines. The more routines you have. The more your child knows what's coming next. What expected. What's part of the routine. The less you have to stand over them and bark orders. Remember though it's not as easy as make a routine and instantaneously your child will follow it. But over time, with consistency, you'll do more prompting and less commanding.
And, finally, how are you demonstrating compassionate listening? If you're looking at your phone, or the t.v. If you don't give your child your attention when he's talking about his day. Or asking a question. Or trying to tell you his sister just took his favorite toy. If you're distracted. Or dismissive. Or don't address his request in some way, he may not be so inclined to listen to you.
A child that chooses not to cooperate. A child that is defiant. Is calling for help. This isn't a behavior problem but a relationship one.
Focus on finding your calm. Letting go of your agenda. Of how things have to be. Let go of the past and the smoldering resentment that your child still isn't washing his hands. Getting ready for bed. Packing his book bag. Doing his chores. Focus on the single moment in front of you.
Set limits lovingly for the things that really matter. Let go of what you can during this time. Rebuild the connection. Make time for special time. Refill your child's love bucket daily. Give attention to those traits your trying to grow in your child.
You're child is like a flower. Every day it needs sunshine. Water. Food. To grow and to thrive. When it begins to wilt, you don't yell at it to straighten up.
Is is work. Yes. In the beginning it might feel like work. If it's not something your used to. It might feel like you're giving in. Or letting your child win.
That is exactly what you need to let go of to be able to see each situation as is. To support him where he needs you. This may fluctuate. If he's tired. Or hungry. Or has a big test or try-out coming up. He might need a little more support in those times.
And in between, grab those little moments of connection when you can and watch your relationship transform.
A hug (or 10) a day can keep the defiance away. Children crave that physical connection with you. As family therapist Virginia Satir stated "We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need twelve hugs a day for growth." If your child doesn't love hugs try a shoulder rub, or tousle his hair as you walk by, snuggle at bedtime or let your child sit on your lap for a book.
Let your child know they're a priority by turning off technology when your with them. Don't let them feel second fiddle to your phone. They don't know if your checking the score of the game, the weather report or whether Bon Jovi is going on tour again.
Carve out family time. Eat dinner together when possible. Create rituals. Family game night. Simply share about your day.
Inject play whenever possible. If that seems completely foreign, grab the book Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen. A must read!
Set an intention prior to every interaction your creating with your child. If bedtime's a challenge. Or your child never wants to clean up. Or you have to tell your child for the umpteenth time to wash his hands.
Repeat to yourself before you open your mouth to speak, "I allow this to flow easily and peacefully. I am calm and peaceful. My child wants to cooperate." Setting an intention for success helps you to then act to fulfill those words. Rather than approaching with "Why does bedtime have to be so difficult." "He is never going to learn to clean up his toys." where you're setting up failure. You're brain is searching for these statements to be true. It's looking for the very thing your focusing on.
Change your focus. Find your calm. Connect before direct.
You've got this mama! Be the parent your child needs to be the child who listens and cooperates.
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