how to talk to your kids so they will listen

A parent has learnt ten tips for talking to children so they listen and is seen talking to a child.

Struggling to help your kids deal with their feelings? Who isn't! Here are ten (extremely helpful) tips from one of the all-time best-selling parenting books: How To Talk So Kids Will Listen And Listen So Kids Will Talk.

1. Is it important that I always empathise with my child?

No. Many of our conversations with our children consist of casual exchanges. If a child were to say, "Mum, I decided that I do want to go swimming this afternoon," it would seem unnecessary for the parent to reply, "So you made a decision to go swimming this afternoon." A simple "Thanks for letting me know" would be sufficient acknowledgement. The time for empathy is when a child wants you to know how they feel. Respecting their positive feelings presents few problems. It's not hard to respond to a youngster's exuberant "I got a B+ on my assignment today!" with an equally enthusiastic "B+! You must be so pleased!"

It's their negative emotions that require our skill. That's where we have to overcome the old temptation to ignore, deny, moralise, etc. One father said that what helped him become more sensitive to his son's emotional needs was when he began to equate the boy's bruised, unhappy feelings with physical bruises. Somehow the image of a cut or a laceration helped him realise that his son required as prompt and serious attention for his hurt feelings as he would for a hurt knee.

2. What's wrong with asking a child directly, "Why do you feel that way?"

Some children can tell you why they're frightened, angry or unhappy. For many, however, the question "Why?" only adds to their problem. In addition to their original distress, they must now analyse the cause and come up with a reasonable explanation. Very often children don't know why they feel as they do. At other times they're reluctant to tell because they fear that in the adult's eyes, their reason won't seem good enough. ("For that you're crying?") It's much more helpful for an unhappy youngster to hear, "I see something is making you sad," rather than to be interrogated with "What happened?" or "Why do you feel that way?". It's easier to talk to a grown-up who accepts what you're feeling rather than one who presses you for explanations.

3. Are you saying we should let our children know we agree with their feelings?

Children don't need to have their feelings agreed with; they need to have them acknowledged. The statement "You're absolutely right" might be satisfying to hear for the moment, but it can also prevent a child from thinking things through for themselves.


CHILD: The teacher says she's calling off our class play. She's mean!

PARENT: After all those rehearsals? I agree with you. She must be mean to do a thing like that.

End of discussion.

Notice how much easier it is for a child to think constructively when his feelings are accepted:

CHILD: My teacher says she's calling off the class play. She's mean.

PARENT: That must be a big disappointment for you. You were looking forward to it.

CHILD: Yeah. Just because some kids fool around at rehearsal. It's their fault.

PARENT: (listens silently)

CHILD: She's mad because nobody knows their parts, too.

PARENT: I see.

CHILD: She said if we "shaped up" she might give us one more chance ... I should go over my lines again. Would you help me tonight?

Conclusion: What people of all ages can use in a moment of distress is not agreement or disagreement; they need someone to recognise what it is they're experiencing.


4. If it's so important to show my child I understand them, what's wrong with simply saying, "I understand how you feel"?

The problem with saying "I understand how you feel" is that some children just don't believe you. They'll answer, "No, you don't." But if you take the trouble to be specific ("The first day of school can be scary—so many new things to get used to"), then the child knows you really do understand.

5. Suppose I try to identify a feeling and it turns out that I'm wrong. What then?

No harm done. Your child will quickly set you right.

CHILD: Dad, our test was postponed till next week.

FATHER: That must have been a relief for you.

CHILD: No, I was mad! Now I'll have to study the same stuff again next week.

FATHER: I see. You were hoping to get it over with.

CHILD: Yeah!

It would be presumptuous for any one person to assume he could always know what another person is feeling. All we can do is attempt to understand our children's feelings. We won't always succeed, but our efforts are usually appreciated.

6. I know feelings should be accepted, but I find it hard to know how to react when I hear "You're mean" or "I hate you" from my own child.

If "I hate you" upsets you, you might want to let your child know, "I didn't like what I just heard. If you're angry about something, tell it to me in another way. Then maybe I can be helpful."

7. Is there any way to help a child who's upset other than by letting him know you understand his feelings?

My son has very little tolerance for any kind of frustration. Occasionally it does seem to help when I acknowledge his feelings and say something like, "That must be so frustrating!" But usually when he's in such an emotional state, he doesn't even hear me. Parents in our groups have found that when their children are extremely upset, sometimes a physical activity can help relieve some of the painful feelings. We've heard many stories about angry children who have felt calmer after punching pillows or pounding Play-Doh. But the one activity that seems most comfortable for parents to watch, and most satisfying for children to do, is to draw their feelings. The two examples that follow happened within a week of each other.

Example A:

I had just come back from a workshop session and found my three-year-old son lying on the floor, having a tantrum. My husband was just standing there looking disgusted. He said, "Okay, child specialist, let's see if you can handle this one." I felt I had to rise to the occasion.

I looked down at Ravi, who was still kicking and screaming, and grabbed a pencil and the pad near the phone. Then I knelt down, handed the pencil and pad to Ravi and said, "Here, show me how angry you are. Draw me a picture of the way you feel." Ravi jumped up immediately and began to draw angry circles. Then he showed it to me and said, "This is how angry I am!" I said, "You really are angry!" and tore another piece of paper from the pad. "Show me more," I said. He scribbled furiously on the page, and again I said, "Boy, that angry!" We went through the whole thing one more time.

When I handed him a fourth piece of paper, he was definitely calmer. He looked at it a long time. Then he said, "Now I show my happy feelings," and he drew a circle with two eyes and a smiling mouth. It was unbelievable. In two minutes he had gone from being hysterical to smiling—just because I let him show me how he felt. Afterwards my husband said, "Keep going to that group." At the next session of our group, another mother told us about her experience using the same skill.

Example B:

When I heard about Ravi last week, my first thought was, "How I wish I could use that approach with Thom." Thom is also three, but he has cerebral palsy. Everything that comes naturally to other kids was monumental for him—standing without falling, keeping his head erect. He's made remarkable progress, but he's still so easily frustrated. Anytime he tries to do something and can't, he screams for hours on end. There is no way in the world I can get through to him. The worst part is that he kicks me and tries to bite me.

I guess he thinks that somehow his difficulties are all my fault, and that I should be able to do something about it. He's angry at me most of the time. On the way home from last week's workshop I thought, "What if I catch Thom before he goes into his full tantrum?"


The tantrum (example B)

That afternoon he was playing with his new puzzle. It was a very simple one, with just a few big pieces. Anyway, he couldn't get the last piece to it, and after a few tries he began to get that look on his face. I thought, "Oh no, here we go again!" I ran over to him and shouted, "Hold it! ... Hold everything! ... Don't move! ... I've gotta get something!" He looked startled. I frantically searched in his bookshelves and found a big purple crayon and a sheet of drawing paper.

I sat down on the floor with him and said, "Thom, is this how angry you feel?" And then I drew sharp zig-zag lines up and down, up and down. "Yeah," he said, and yanked the crayon out of my hand and made wild slashing lines. Then he stabbed the paper over and over again until it was full of holes. I held the paper up to the light and said, "You are so mad ... You are absolutely furious!" He grabbed the paper away from me and, crying all the while, tore it again and again until it was nothing more than a pile of shreds. When he was all finished, he looked up at me and said, "I love you, Mummy." It was the first time he'd ever said that.

I've tried it again since and it doesn't work all the time. I guess I have to find some other physical outlet for him, like a punching bag or something. But I'm beginning to realise that what's most important is that, while he's punching or pounding or drawing, I be there—watching him, letting him know that even his angriest feelings are understood and accepted.

8. If I accept all of my child's feelings, won't that give them the idea that anything they do is all right with me? I don't want to be a permissive parent.

We are too worried about being permissive. But gradually we began to realise that this approach was permissive only in the sense that all feelings were permitted. For example, "I can see that you're having fun making designs in the butter with your fork." But that doesn't mean that you have to permit a child to behave in a way that's unacceptable to you. As you remove the butter, you can also let the young 'artist' know: "Butter is not for playing with. If you want to make designs, you can use your clay." We found that when we accepted our children's feelings, the children were more able to accept the limits we set for them.

9. What is the objection to giving children advice when they have a problem?

When we give children advice or instant solutions, we deprive them of the experience that comes from wrestling with their own problems.

Is there ever a time for advice?
Certainly. (see below)

10. Is there anything you can do if you realise afterwards that you've given your child an unhelpful response? Yesterday my daughter came home from school upset. She wanted to tell me about how some kids picked on her at school. I was preoccupied and tired, and I brushed her off and told her to stop crying–that it wasn't the end of the world. She looked so unhappy and went up to her room. I know I made her feel worse, but what can I do now?

Every time a parent says to themselves, "I wish I hadn't said that. Why didn't I think to say ...," they automatically get another chance. Life with children is open-ended. There's always another opportunity—later in the hour, day or week—to say, "I've been thinking about what you told me before, about those kids teasing you at the playground. And I realise now how upsetting that must have been for you."

Compassion is always appreciated, whether it comes sooner or later.


a) Children usually object when their exact words are repeated back to them.


CHILD: I don't like Izzy anymore.

PARENT: You don't like Izzy anymore.

CHILD: (with annoyance) That's what I just said.

This child might have preferred a less parrot-like response, such as: "Something about Izzy bothers you." OR "Sounds as if you're really annoyed with Izzy."

b) There are youngsters who prefer no talk at all when they're upset. For them, Mum's or Dad's presence is comfort enough.

One mother told us about walking into the living room and seeing her ten-year-old daughter slumped on the sofa with tear-stained eyes. The mother sat down beside her daughter, put her arms around her, murmured, "Something happened," and sat silently with her for five minutes. Finally, her daughter sighed and said, "Thanks, Mum. I'm better now." The mother never did find out what happened. All she knew was that her comforting presence must have been helpful, because an hour later she heard her daughter humming to herself in her room.

c) Some children become irritated when they express an intense emotion and their parent's response is 'correct' but cool.

A teenager in one of our workshops told us that she came home one afternoon in a rage because her best friend had betrayed a very personal secret. She told her mother what had happened, and very matter-of-factly her mother commented, "You're angry." The girl said she couldn't help snapping back with a sarcastic, "No kidding."

We asked her what she would have liked her mother to say. She thought awhile and answered, "It wasn't the words; it was how she said it. It was as if she was talking about the feelings of someone she didn't even care about. I guess I wanted her to show me that she was right in there with me. If she had just said something like 'Boy, Lizzie, you must be furious at her!' then I would have felt she understood."

d) It's also not helpful when parents respond with more intensity than the child feels.


TEENAGER: (grumbling) Rocco kept me waiting on the soccer field after school for an hour, and then he made up some story that I know isn't true.

MOTHER: That is inexcusable! How could he do such a thing to you? He's inconsiderate and irresponsible. You must feel like never seeing him again.

It probably never occurred to the teenager to react so violently to his friend or to consider so drastic a retaliation. All he probably needed from his mum was an understanding grunt and a shake of the head to convey sympathy for his irritation at his friend's behaviour. He didn't need the additional burden of having to cope with her strong emotions.

e) Children don't appreciate having the names they call themselves repeated by their parents.

When a child tells you he's dumb or ugly or fat, it's not helpful to reply with "Oh, so you think you're dumb" or "You really feel you're ugly". Let's not cooperate with him when he calls himself names. We can accept his pain without repeating the name.


CHILD: The teacher said we're only supposed to spend fifteen minutes a night on homework. It took me a whole hour to finish. I must be dumb.

PARENT: It can be discouraging when work takes longer than you expect.


CHILD: I look terrible when I smile. All you can see are my braces. I'm ugly.

PARENT: You really don't like the way you look in those things. And it probably doesn't help to know that to me you're a pleasing sight—with or without your braces.

We hope our 'cautions' haven't scared you off. It's probably obvious to you by now that dealing with feelings is an art, not a science. Yet we have faith (based upon years of observation) that parents, after some trial and error, can master the art. You'll sense after a while what is helpful to your individual child and what isn't. With practice, you'll soon discover what irritates and what comforts, what creates distance and what invites intimacy, what wounds and what heals. There is no substitute for your own sensitivity.

. . .

Giving Advice

The moment we mention to a group that giving advice to children may interfere with their autonomy, many parents are immediately up in arms. They feel, "Now that's going too far!" They cannot understand why they should be deprived of the right to share their parental wisdom. What follows are the questions of one persistent mother and a summary of the answers we gave her.

Why shouldn't my child have the benefit of my advice when she has a problem? For example, my daughter, Romy, wasn't sure she should go to her friend's birthday party because she didn't like some of the other girls who were being invited. They "always whisper and call names". What's wrong with telling Romy that she should go anyway, because otherwise she'll be letting down her friend?

When you give immediate advice to children, they either feel stupid ("Why didn't I think of that myself?"), resentful ("Don't tell me how to run my life!") or irritated ("What makes you think I didn't think of that already?").

When a child figures out for themselves what they want to do, they grow in confidence and are willing to assume responsibility for their decision.

Are you saying, then, that I should do nothing when my child has a problem? The few times I've told Romy, "It's your problem; you deal with it," she seemed very upset.

Children do feel hurt and deserted when their parents ignore their problems. But between the extremes of ignoring completely or moving in with instant advice there's much a parent can do:

a) Help them sort out their tangled thoughts and feelings.

"From what you've told me, Romy, you seem to have two feelings about the birthday party. You want to be with your friend on her birthday, but you don't want to have to contend with the girls you don't like."

b) Restate the problem as a question.

"So the question seems to be, 'How do you find a way to be at the party and deal with the name-calling of some of the girls?"

It's a good idea to keep quiet after you've asked a question like this. Your silence provides the soil in which the child's solutions can grow.

c) Point out resources your child can use outside the home.

"I'll bet there are websites that have ideas on how to cope with name-calling and put-downs. You may want to see what they suggest."

Suppose I do all that and then think of a solution that I'm sure Romy hasn't thought of. Can I mention it to her?

After she's had time to become more clear about what she thinks and feels, she'll be able to give your idea a fair hearing—particularly if you introduce it in a way that shows respect for her autonomy:

"How would you feel about bringing some biscuits to the party, the ones everyone loves that you make with Nan? Maybe the girls will be too busy eating to start whispering."

When we preface our suggestions with "How would you feel about ..." or "Would you consider ..." we acknowledge the fact that the advice that seems so 'sensible' to us can be 'not so sensible' to the child.

But suppose I feel strongly that Romy should go to the party. Must I remain silent?

After a child has explored their problem, it can be helpful for them to hear her parents' thoughts or convictions.

"It would bother me to think that you would have to miss the fun of a party because of the way some girls act."

"I think it's important not to disappoint a good friend on her birthday, even if it entails some sacrifice."

A young person is entitled to know her parents' values. Even if they choose not to act upon them now, you can be sure you have given them something to think about.


This is an edited extract from How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, published by Piccadilly Books, RRP $29.99 for Lunch Lady Issue 20. Photograph by Lisa Sorgini and illustration by Sakuya Higuchi for Lunch Lady Issue 20.