You’re cleaning up the kitchen after dinner when you notice the time. “Boys,” you sweetly call to your kids who are play-wrestling in the other room, “it’s time to go upstairs and get ready for bed.”
A minute goes by. The noise level from the other room starts to increase.
“BOYS!” you say louder and a little less sweetly, “It’s time to go upstairs.”
You hear a crash, then loud laughter.
“BOOOOYYYSSS!” Now you’re legit yelling as you storm into the playroom. “GET UPSTAIRS. NOW!”
Your kids continue wrestling as if you’re nowhere to be seen or heard.
If this scenario has become even more of a regular occurrence since the pandemic, you’re not alone.
Kids not listening is the most common and most universal parenting complaint, and it has been exacerbated by the increased time we’re all spending together as a result of the pandemic.
As with most things in life that are worthwhile, getting your kids to listen takes some work on your end. Just like we can’t expect to be healthy and fit if we sit around and eat too much, we can’t expect our kids to hop to it if we’re just barking out orders all the time!
The sooner we let go of the expectation that our kids should just listen because we’re the parents and we accept the reality that it takes two to tango, the more cooperative our kids will be and the less frustrated we’ll feel.
At the end of the day, we can’t force our kids to listen. But there are several things we can do to increase the likelihood that they will.
Here are 10 tips to elicit more cooperation from your kids, and get kids to listen—without yelling.
1. Solve the bigger problem.
Sometimes not listening boils down to kids just being kids and getting so involved in what they’re doing that they tune us out. Other times, there’s more going on than meets the eye.
The most common underlying issue that causes kids not to listen is a lack of connection. Parent educator Pam Leo sums it up perfectly: “The level of cooperation parents get from their children is usually equal to the level of connection children feel with their parents.”
When our kids feel that we’re tuned into their lives, that we really see them and that they matter to us, they’re more likely to listen to what we have to say.
Other underlying problems that can affect a child’s ability to listen include: slow processing speed, difficulty with transitions, auditory processing issues, being unsure of your expectations, being unable to complete the task and difficulty with motor planning (following a sequence of steps).
Children with sensory processing challenges, ADHD, and autism are more likely to have the above challenges and often need additional intervention in order to improve their listening skills.
2. Connect before you direct.
If your kids are in another room and you call out a request, expect to be ignored! Instead, stop what you’re doing, go over to your child and acknowledge what he’s doing: “That looks like a cool race track you’re building.” Invite him to tell you about it and invest the time to really listen.
Inconvenient? Yes. Annoying to have to stop what you’re doing? Yes. But, remember, so is working out and eating healthy, but we do it anyway if we want results.
After you’ve connected, then you can make your request. Start by lightly touching your child on the shoulder or arm to get his attention, get down on his level, look him in the eye and state your request: “Honey, it’s time to clean up.”
Key words here: state your request.
If you ask or demand, you’re more likely to get resistance.
3. Give choices.
Kids are unconsciously looking for ways to feel more powerful and to have more control—seeking autonomy is a natural and important part of a child’s development. The more opportunities we can give them to make their own decisions, the more cooperative they’re likely to be.
Immediately after stating your request, offer a choice: “Would you like to clean up the play doh or pick up the Legos?” “Would you like to do your math or English homework first? “Would you like to take a bath or a shower?” “Do you want to brush your teeth first or get dressed?”
4. Less talk, more action.
This is where I get stuck! I tend to become a broken record, repeating myself several times instead of stating the request once, then taking action. When we go on and on, nagging and repeating, we start to sound like the teacher in the Charlie Brown movies and our kids learn to ignore our initial requests.
If you’ve connected, stated your request, given a choice and your child is still ignoring you, go back to step two and focus on the connection. If you haven’t connected with your child throughout the day, you can expect to spend more time on step two before getting your child to cooperate.
5. Notice your tone.
How we say something is much more important than what we’re actually saying. If we come out of the gate with an irritated tone we can expect to be tuned out.
This one is easier said than done, especially right now when every single parent on the planet is experiencing heightened stress and less patience! Give yourself some grace while simultaneously understanding that our tone plays a big role in our child’s willingness to comply.
6. Flip the negative.
Negative commands like “don’t hit your brother,” “don’t throw your clothes on the floor,” “don’t jump on the couch,” require double processing: What am I not supposed to do, AND what am I supposed to do instead?
Flipping the negative into a positive—”keep your hands to yourself,” “put your clothes in the hamper” “keep your feet off the couch”— communicates exactly what you’d like your child to do, which increases the likelihood that he will do it.
7. Ensure comprehension.
Have your child repeat back your request after you’ve made one to ensure that he understands what you’re expecting. This is a simple way to make sure everyone is on the same page, to allow you to clarify if you’re not and to ensure that your child actually heard what you were saying.
8. Become a Yes Woman
How many times a day do we say “no” to our kids? “No, you can’t have dessert,” “No, we can’t go to the park right now,” “No, you can’t have more screen time.” Yet, we expect them to listen and say yes to every single request we make! When we stop and put ourselves in their shoes, it’s easy to see why they aren’t all that cooperative.
Looking for more opportunities to say yes is a great way to increase their cooperation. “I know you love dessert, let’s save it for the weekend. Would you like to have it on Friday or Saturday night?” “The park sounds fun! As soon as I’m done cleaning up the kitchen, let’s go!” “You’ve been having so much fun playing Roblox. You can have ten more minutes and then it’s time to do your homework.”
9. Channel your inner comedian
This is where my husband shines—he’s amazing at injecting humor to defuse potential power struggles. Try saying things in a funny voice, being silly or poking fun at yourself when making requests.
My husband’s go-to playful tactic is what he calls the “fist of fury.” It sounds horrible, but it’s actually pretty funny. When he asks my boys to do something, like, “Hey boys, time to go upstairs to take a bath,” he follows it up with, “or beware of the fist of fury!” Then he makes a fist and acts like his arm has a mind of its own, goes over to them and starts play-wrestling, but as if it’s the “fist of fury” doing it, not him.
Our boys LOVE it and laugh every time. After a few minutes of play-wrestling (dad code for connection), our boys are so much more likely to comply with the request.
10. Choose your battles
I mean, if this isn’t the motto for parenting in general, I don’t know what is! On any given day, we parents have so much to juggle, there are some things we just have to let go of.
Decide what’s really important to you and focus on those things. For me, complying with the end of screen time, clearing dishes and cleaning up after meals, and cooperating at bedtime are the things I’m focusing on right now.
Putting the pillows back on the couch after they’ve thrown them on the floor during screen time (drives me completely bonkers!), straightening up the bed in the guest room after they’ve gone in there to watch a movie, and getting themselves dressed in the morning without me coaching them along are all things that—for now—I’ve decided to let slide.
Just like we adults need some grace during this stressful time, our kids do too!
If you’ve been driven crazy lately by your kids’ lack of cooperation, give some of these tips a try. I think you’ll be surprised by how well they work… and by how much more sane you feel!
This post first appeared on the author’s website.