Why Your Kids May Not Be Listening To You! (“How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk”)

Faber & Mazlish

I am a proud mother of two children–ages 9 and 11.  Not a day goes by that I don’t have a parenting moment that gives me a nice, swift kick in the rear-end!  While being the most gratifying adventure I have taken thus far, parenting has also been extremely humbling, challenging and confusing at best!  My kids are the BEST (I mean top-notch) teachers in the world.  They give me instant feedback on how I’m doing on a real-time basis.  I can go from hero to arch nemesis in minutes.  And I find it all SO convenient that these little mentors of mine will be living with me for the next foreseeable decade or so.  So the lessons aren’t stopping any time soon.  In all seriousness, being a parent is one of the biggest motivating factors for me to continue down the personal development journey.  I figure, the better “me” that I can be, the better role model I can be for my kids.  But, here’s the thing I’ve discovered, often the skills required to have an open, communicative and healthy relationship with my kids are not intuitive or natural to me.  They say parenting doesn’t come with a manual, but I thank goodness for some really great books out there that offer sound advice, guidance, or just a different way of approaching challenging situations with my kids.  One such book, is this week’s “Wisdom In a Pinch” highlight — “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk” by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish .  Brilliant title because it’s exactly what I want with my kids.  The book starts with a really eye-opening lesson for me about why it sometimes feels like my kids and I are speaking two different languages.  In this post I share a fundamental and critical requirement for any effective communication to take place–not just with kids, but with anyone!

Accepting Kids’ Feelings

A basic and common problem in the communication between children and their parents is this :

“Parents don’t usually accept their children’s feelings.” – Faber & Mazlish

That’s it.  Simple.  I bet you are thinking “I don’t do that!”  Well, that’s what I told myself anyway.  And then, I read on and I started to hear and see myself from my kids’ perspective.

Child : I’m so hungry! I need a snack.
Me : You can’t possibly be hungry, we just ate!
Child : But I am hungry.  I want something to eat.
Me : No, you’re not.  You’re just bored.  Go find something to do.

Child : I can’t believe my teacher assigned 4 pages of homework!  She’s so stupid and unfair!
Me : You don’t mean that.  She’s just giving you the practice you need.
Child : No, she’s mean and wants to torture us.
Me : I really don’t think so.  I think you just don’t want to do any homework at all!

Child : Oh my, that book you made me read was sooo boring!
Me : No, it was so inspiring and had such a good story.
Child : No, it was totally boring.  Nothing happened!
Me : It was a good story with great characters!

The book gave some similar sample conversations.  The above conversations are just real conversations I have had with my own children!  It wasn’t hard for me to think of situations in which I am constantly correcting, imposing or simply telling them how my kids SHOULD be feeling or thinking.  Sometimes these conversations are completely benign and just irritating for all parties.  Other times, they turn into arguments.  Either way, there’s no communication or listening really going on here.

“Steady denial of feelings can confuse and enrage kids.  Also teaches them not to know what their feelings are–not to trust them.” – Faber & Mazlish

Faber & mazlish

Put Yourself In Your Kids’ Shoes

How do you feel when you are upset, angry or frustrated?  Often when we talk to a friend or go to someone to share a problem we are wrestling with, we just want to feel heard, to be given the space to feel whatever we are feeling.  Faber and Mazlish explain that the way that parents often dismiss their children’s negative feelings can be commonly seen in how we communicate with adults as well. It’s a habit we’ve developed in the way we communicate.  The authors share eight ways that we tend to respond to other people’s distressing situations :

  1. Denial of Feelings – “You shouldn’t be angry.  Why would you feel that way?  You’re probably just stressed because of everything else that’s going on right now.”
  2. The Philosophical Response – “All things pass.  Don’t you think life is too short to worry about the little things?”
  3. Advice – “I think you need to just stop helping him.  Tell him you are done being a doormat and that he’s on his own!  Don’t put up with it one more minute!”
  4. Questions – “Why did you say that?  How did they react?  Why didn’t you just say what was on your mind?”
  5. Defense of the Other Person – “I am sure there is a good reason for her actions.  I mean, she is taking on a lot of responsibility.”
  6. Pity – “I feel so sorry for you!  That is the worse thing to happen.  I feel awful!”
  7. Amateur Psychoanalysis – “This is happening because of your abandonment issues and your are just looking for love in the wrong places.”
  8. Empathetic Response (an attempt to tune into the feelings of another) – “I can see why you are having such a hard time with it.  It must be frustrating to have to learn so much in such a short period of time.  It must have been a rough day today!”

Taking an honest look at some of these reactions, I would have to say I’ve probably been guilty of using all of them at some point or another with a friend or family member.  Now personally, being on the receiving end of most of these would not necessarily enrage me–but only because I’ve become so desensitized to most of them!  I think when I am in distress, I am so caught up in the way I am feeling, I am not listening to anyone’s advice, philosophies, pity or psychoanalysis.  If I think about what I really need at that time it is the empathetic response.  Just someone who is willing to listen, acknowledge my struggle and give me a chance to ramble a bit.  I think more often than not, we intuitively know the answer to our difficult situations.  It is much more empowering and calming to be given the space to come up with those solutions on your own, rather than a barrage of questions or advice.  I also realized how often I assumed that when someone was sharing their painful situation with me it implied that they also wanted my advice.  They usually don’t.  And if they did, they could just ask for it.

Now I am starting to see that all of this applies to my children as well.  I think, as parents however, the circumstance is doubly intensified because we want to swoop in to fix, save, and rescue immediately.  We feel it is our duty as parents.  And sometimes, we are just more comfortable when we are fully in control–even of our kids’ emotions.

“But the language of empathy does not come naturally to us….Most of us grew up having our feelings denied.  To become fluent in this new language of acceptance, we have to learn and practice its methods.” – Faber & Mazlish

Mazlish & Faber


The Methods to Accept Our Children’s Feelings

Mazlish and Faber offer four different ways in which parents can use to help their kids deal with their negative feelings.

1. Listen with full attention

Have you ever tried talking to someone that you knew was only half-listening, or distracted?  It’s frustrating, belittling, and discouraging.  It’s no different with our kids.  I think it is easy to belittle their problems because they can often seem so trivial from an adult’s perspective.  Personally, sometimes I feel so exasperated by my children’s “problems”, that I ignore them or just tell them to figure it out. I go right into that mindset of “Here we go again.  She’s going to want me to fix her problems!”  But, the truth is my “logical” parent advice is often irritating to them and not what they want or need.  They are not in the mindset to listen.  They just want to be heard.  Sometimes, all that is needed is attention and empathetic silence.

2. Acknowledge their feelings with a word –“Oh”…”Mmmm”…”I see.”

Instead of rushing in with that instinct to give advice or ask more questions about a child’s problem, practice actively listening more.  Say as little as possible, but acknowledge that you are listening with a nod, an “oh”, or “I see”.  This also gives the child the opportunity to connect more with their thoughts and feelings about the situation.  Perhaps with enough space and time, they can start to problem solve on their own.

“It is difficult for a child to think clearly or constructively when someone is questioning, blaming, or advising her.” – Faber & Mazlish

3. Give their feelings a name.

When we deny or try to brush our children’s negative feelings under the rug, it can really infuriate and frustrate them!  They feel misunderstood and not heard.  Instead, give their negative feelings a name.  Help them identify and connect with that feeling.  I have to admit, this felt really unnatural to me at first.   It seemed to me that this was akin to encouraging their negative feelings.  But just like adults, children just want to be acknowledged and accepted–even when they are experiencing negative emotions. So, I tried this with my daughter one day when I picked her up from school.  She was complaining about a teacher and excessive homework and instead of defending the teacher or giving advice like I usually do, I decided to give this approach a try instead.  I responded by saying “That must be really frustrating for you!”  And she then continued on her rant. “Well, yeah, I don’t know how she expects us to do all of this in one night!” And I simply said, “Yeah, I can hear how angry you are!”  And her anger seemed to diffuse a bit, she slowed down her speech, and she went on complaining a little more. And I just said, “Yeah, it does sound frustrating.”  And she just stopped, confused and responded, “Since when do you care how I feel?”.  Now that may not be the most encouraging feedback, but it was extremely telling and constructive for me!  It told me just how long and often I have been denying her negative feelings–especially the really touchy ones for me–the ones make ME feel uncomfortable.  On the encouraging note, it also meant that she noticed!  She got my intention–which was to cultivate acceptance and understanding.  I was starting to really understand why she would get so exasperated when I would respond to her rants with calm, rational advice.

“The child who hears the words for what she is experiencing is deeply comforted.  Someone has acknowledged her inner experience.” – Faber & Mazlish

Faber & Mazlish

4. Give them their wishes in fantasy.

When a child wants something they can’t have, the natural adult response is to explain why they can’t.  Depending on their level of maturity, the response to this can vary, I find.  But sometimes, it is met with more protest.  Instead, you can acknowledge and understand their disappointment by granting their wishes with your imagination.  “I wish I had a magic lamp and could make a hundred chocolate bars appear right here!” ; “I wish I could freeze time, fly to the playground with you, and then fly back home in time for me to start dinner!” ; “I wish I had a magic weather machine that could melt all the snow and have the sun shine right over our house so we could go outside and play ball right now!”

“Sometimes just having someone understand how much you want something makes reality easier to bear.” – Mazlish & Faber

In Conclusion…

So ready to try on some of these techniques with your kids?  It’s definitely a different mindset for me, but I am already feeling encourage by some of their responses.  Of course, any book on parenting, I find is great place for guidance and some new tools, but ultimately you know your kids best and every parent-child dynamic is unique and different.  I really appreciated this advice on accepting and helping kids deal with their difficult emotions.  Any of these methods speak to you?  How do you help your children deal with their negative emotions?  Can you see how this could be helpful with adult interactions?  Please share and comment below.

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Patricia Bardowell delivers bite-sized inspiration to help you create the life you dream of. Click here to find out more about her Mission and Vision.