Advice for parents who want to talk so their children will listen

Our children sometimes feel more criticized than understood. In our eagerness to help, parents try to fix problems, correct behaviors or give feedback before we fully understand a child’s perspective. This article offers guidelines for parents who want to talk so their children will listen.


Do listen to your child’s point of view until you understand it

Ask questions and let kids know you get it. This doesn’t mean that you must agree with what is said. It means you get it, so you can respond and take their point of view into account. Show that you understand. For example: “So you feel that it is not fair that the teacher got mad at you when other people were doing the same thing.”

Understanding before you respond is more likely to lead to a productive outcome. You children’s perspective matters to them, and you have to start wherever they are. You can’t expect kids to share your view of what is important. This means acknowledging what they think is legitimate—even if you have to ask or tell them to do something else.

Do try to understand rather than fix

Attempt to understand rather than fix. And understand the difference between imposing a solution and working together. How often do we jump in and try to make things better? Doing this can inadvertently invalidate feelings. For example, responding with, “Oh, you shouldn’t take that so seriously” tells a child that you don’t understand why it seems so serious to him or her.

Sometimes, our kids don’t tell us what is bothering them because they are afraid we won’t just listen and our attempts to fix will actually make things worse. Recognize the importance of compromise. Often, it helps to say “You want X, and I need Y. How can we do this?” Children frequently come up with very good solutions you wouldn’t expect.

Do take time to calm yourself down

When you are calm, you can rationally decide how to respond to behavior that upsets you. Keep in mind that responding impulsively out of anger can make things worse—or be unfair. You can’t control a fight, but you can control your timing. Take a break before fighting if necessary and say, “We will talk about this later.”

Do think about what interests your child

Rather than just talk about what interests you, consider what interests your child. You might not always want to talk about the day at work, and your child might not always want to talk about school. You like talking to friends who share your interests, so show an interest in what your child likes.

Do put away your electronics

Tolerate the symptoms of electronics withdrawal. Think about all of the parents you see in restaurants at dinner with their children, with their cellphones out, totally ignoring their kids. Don’t let this happen to you.


Do not tell your child how to fix things unless asked to do so

It is important to refrain from telling your child how to fix things (unless asked to do so) or asking if they want your ideas. This takes a lot of self-control. Sometimes children won’t tell you things because they are afraid you will fix it and make it worse for them. Older children won’t listen to your solution anyway, and they will think you are a pain--or do the opposite of what you suggest.

Do not take the good for granted

Notice what kids do right and tell them. It is human nature to pay attention to what is not pleasing us and take for granted what is good. Even framing a criticism positively makes a difference. For example, instead of just complaining about a bad grade, tell your child that you know he does a lot of good things in school, and that he probably wanted better results for his efforts than he was getting.

Do not overlook the need to be specific in expectations and requests

If you complain that your child is not being thoughtful or helpful, this necessitates mind reading to know what you mean. Instead, say, “I wish you would ask me if I need help when I have to carry a lot of bags inside the house.” Another example is cleaning. If you ask to have bedrooms cleaned up, “clean” may mean “put away” to you and “off the floor” to your child.

Do not use words such as “always,” “never” and “should”

Overgeneralizing is usually overstating and not helpful. And “should” is criticism rather than inviting cooperation.

Do not underestimate the importance of taking responsibility for your choices and actions

Take responsibility for your choices and actions. For example, if you drop what you are doing to fill a request whenever someone asks, you only have yourself to blame. This idea is critical because it means you will take care of yourself and feel less resentment.

Jumping cartoon

Think of these as communication goals, rather than something you can do immediately. And give yourself time and understanding—just as you give time and understanding to those you love.

More expert advice about Improving Family Communication

Photo Credits: Happy family resting at beach in summer by alenkasm via BigStock; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D.Licensed Psychologist

Dr. Eckerd is a licensed psychologist in practice since 1985. She specializes in working with individuals individuals dealing with cognitive rigidity, anxiety, and poor emotional control, social understanding or social skills. She trained extens...

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