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Teach your child to listen with these 3 steps

Teach your child to listen with these 3 steps

​“If you would just listen, I’ve told you this a thousand times!” Famous words by frustrated parents. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t said this or something worse.

Parents yell these exaggerated phrases at children out of frustration, thinking that bringing attention to their lack of auditory mastery will flip a switch and begin hanging onto our every word and follow every instruction. ARGHH- IF ONLY! ☺

The other day, my daughter was having drama at school with another student. I took a quick break from what I was doing, made eye contact, and even sat down by her for a few moments. My mind wasn’t in it as I was thinking about my project at work, but I was doing a great job of acting like a concerned father. I gave her a few suggestions to avoid the drama and sent her on her way. The next day, she went back to school, did the opposite of what I suggested and things got worse.

She came home, rushed over to me and began sobbing. She cried harder than I’ve seen her cry in several years.

It was heart breaking.

Completely baffled by her actions at school I asked “Why didn’t you just try what I suggested?”

She said “Daddy, you don’t get it. I miss my old friends and my old school. I want to move back home.”

I realized that she had given me several cues during the past week that she was struggling with our recent out-of-state move. If I had given her my full attention the night before and asked even a few short follow up questions to really understand where she was coming from, I would have found out that this was much more than which girl gets to sit by whom at which lunch table.

She was desperately home sick and I wasn’t acknowledging it.

Now, in fairness it would have helped if she had just come out and said-“Hey blockhead-I’m homesick, sad and miss my old friends”. In that same vein of fairness, most children don’t communicate their honest emotions up front, it takes a little digging and effort. .

This was eye-opening for me. Wasn’t my effort at “faking attention” to her need in a stressful situation, an exact replica of what makes me frustrated with my own children.

I probably tell my children to put down what they are doing, focus, make eye contact, and repeat back what I’m saying at least a dozen times daily. But yet, in her time of need I acted out the part, but wasn’t truly listening or giving my attention.

“Listen to children as you would have children listen to you”

Ahh yes, the GOLDEN RULE. I switched it up a bit, but the message is clear.

Research suggests that children learn more through observation and copying behavior than through any other learning medium. Children observe and copy the behaviors of those closest to them. They look to close friends and family to show them how to act, speak, fight, become closed off, love, respect and forgive.

I had a football coach in high school who rode around in a golf cart, barked orders, and seemed to be genuinely angry at the world most of the time. I dreaded him coming around and so I avoided him as best I could. I wonder some times if that’s how my children see me. I hope not, but I’m sure I have those days.

Eliminate distractions

Children must wonder why they are held to a different standard when it comes to “listening”. They are expected to put their cell phones down, take their ear buds out and make eye contact. I don’t say this to make us feel guilty, but how often do you meet your own standards for listening?

We need to model what listening looks like. Put our laptops and cell phones away. Turn off the TV, don’t worry about capturing the perfect social media post and just listen. As you watch body language, facial expressions and pay attention to word choice-children’s honest emotions come out. I work with a psychologist who calls this “honest listening”.

Body language gives you a strong sense of emotional truth. Children often say what they think parents want to hear, but their body language cannot lie. Their faces and eyes give them away.

When you find yourself making this mental shift, point it out to them and teach them HOW you are listening.

You can say “Okay, I’m going to put my phone away so that you have my full attention.” or “Let’s turn the TV off, so that I’m not distracted and can really focus on what you have to say.”

This teaches them that listening and more serious conversations can be had without distraction.

As you give them this courtesy, they will reciprocate.

Honest listening shows your children that you love and respect them, it also gives them space to explore problems and sometimes find their own solution. Being listened to feels good and difficult feelings and emotions seem to dissipate.

This leads to less arguments and complaining but most importantly as you honestly listen to your children, they will learn how to honestly listen to you.


This great concept is taught by Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) practitioners. Psycho-geography defines the psychological relationship that you create with your children just based on where and how you stand or sit by them. This is more than just physically “being on their level”.

This refers to the negative and overpowering energy created when a parent stands directly over their children and yells at them.

We’ve all been there as both the child and the parent. It’s okay, there’s no judgement, just enlightenment and progress.

Positioning your body makes a big difference when trying to discipline

Put yourself back into your own shoes as a child. You’re standing there, you’ve done something wrong, and your parent is towering over you, glaring, pointing and raising their voice directly at you.

Their entire focus and source of their problem is you.

Remember how you felt. Were you angry, sad, guilt ridden, shamed, confused even?

This is because the message trying to be sent is “I’m frustrated with you, you’ve doing something wrong” and is not being received. What is being received is “there is something wrong with me, I am the problem”.

Don’t believe me? Find a partner to do this exercise with. Have your partner sit down in a chair or on the couch. Without saying anything-invade their space by getting really close to them, stand over them and point, while giving them a dirty look. Switch roles and do it again.

This is so uncomfortable-it ends with awkward laughing and the sitting partner sliding as far away as possible, or just getting up and creating a large space of separation.

Do it a second time with a scolding remark or disappointed statement like “You really disappointed me” or the example at the top of the post “If you would just listen!”

The spoken words are most likely being lost by the overwhelming feelings of “I’m in trouble” or “I’m the problem”. Chances of honest listening taking place? Slim to none.

It’s all about the angles

Create a therapeutic alliance with your child by discussing criticism or feedback by standing to their right or left side. They will have a preferred side and you find this out by asking them which side is preferable or by being aware of how they physically respond to you standing on that side.

Do they look uncomfortable and switch sides for you? Do they back away? If they appear uncomfortable and haven’t said anything, switch sides for them and see how they respond.

Now, when discussing the criticism point to the problem, use your hands as if the problem was out in front of you. If you are standing on their left side. Put your right arm around their shoulder and use your left hand to point out in front of you to describe the problem. Use hand gestures as if the problem really was in front of you and not between you.

You are looking at the problem with them from the same angle, by standing next to them your body positions indicate that you’re on the same side. In the clinical world, we call this a therapeutic alliance. By simply shifting where you stand and aiming your focus and energy out in front of you, with your child on your side you begin approaching problems together.

If you are sitting at the dinner table, the same principle applies. Try not to sit directly in front of your children when disciplining them. Sit off to the side, diagonally if possible. Remember, there is a problem to discuss and resolve, but it isn’t your child.

Why create a Psycho-geographic alliance?

The goal is help children listen to what you are saying and to embrace or implement your feedback. When standing directly in front of their angry parents, they are defensive, overwhelmed and sometimes scared. The message is lost and replaced with “wow, my parents are really mad at me, I don’t like how this feels.”

Speak their language

Lastly, to get your child to listen-speak their language. Use their vocabulary, voice tones, and expressions. Subtle differences in words, tone and body language may effect whether your child tunes in or out!

Research suggests that when we hear some one who speaks like us, we are much more likely to pay attention. If someone speaks with an accent, a different language, or different vocabularies? We quickly tune them out.

Here are some tips around using tone of voice and body language. Sometimes how you say something is more important than what you say.

  • Use a positive and up-beat tone as much as possible.
  • When discussing boundaries or limits, sound confident and final. Hints of uncertainty leave the door open for being ignored, debated or guilt tripped.
  • Without yelling, indicate disapproval with a lower voice and slightly slowed down speech.
  • Avoid future nagging by allowing your children to ask once nicely, and maybe one more time with a prompt. After that, the answer should be “No” with an explanation that if they ask again, the consequence for not listening will be an automatic “NO” the next time they ask the following day.
  • Communicate from close by. Don’t shout something you want them to really listen to from the next room

Trust your parenting instincts

Simply put, we need to teach by example. When do we want our children to listen the most? When we’re frustrated, when we’re in a hurry, when we’re out in public..When we feel stress.

Our children are no different. They want to be heard when they are in distress. It’s our job to recognize this, put down what we are doing and give them 100% of our attention.

By doing so we are creating a therapeutic alliance where from which we can communicate sensitive topics.

We’re teaching them that when someone asks for your attention, you give it to them. Put down your phone, game, work etc. and listen. It’s foolish to expect them to put down their devices if we don’t.

Learn how to better communication with your children by using the skill of Effective Communication.