Most parents have the best of intentions – but when their child repeatedly ignores instructions, requests or orders, even the greatest mums and dads can lose it and start shouting, bribing, threatening or doing whatever it takes to get their child to listen.
It’s a universal problem – and one that psychotherapists Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright say they can solve. The best way to get a child to listen, they insist, is to listen to them.
That’s the first part of their three-step ALP approach – Attune, Limit Set, Problem Solve – which they outline in their new book Now Say This (Easons, €21.00), a follow-up to their first book The Happy Sleeper.
“One of the biggest sources of frustration for parents is when children don’t listen,” says Turgeon.
“Your toddler goes stiff as a board when you try to put her into the buggy or, despite your daily instruction to ‘be nice to your brother’, your daughter still provokes and teases him until they both end up in tears.
“These are moments when all you want is some control and sanity. You just want your words to work.”
Here are the three steps they say are more likely to make young children listen without parents having to shout or threaten them:
The first step in communicating well with your child is to attune to what’s going on for them. “Ultimately, listening to your child makes him more likely to listen to you,” stresses Wright.
The authors say that pausing before you react can be very important, although not at all easy. Parents need to consider what’s happening with their child and try to understand. Although this approach may seem unrealistic in the heat of the moment, Wright and Turgeon point out that if a child feels understood by their parent even when they’re being difficult or misbehaving, they reap enormous emotional and cognitive benefits, and parent and child stay connected.
“And even though kids technically ‘know’ rules, there’s a difference between knowing them and putting them into practice in the moment,” explains Wright.
My 3 year old this morning because she couldn't spend another 5 minutes cleaning her teeth:
"Mam, I'm sorry for making you sad but you made me mad"June 18, 2018
To illustrate how to attune with children, Wright and Turgeon use the example of a mum being ignored when she told her children to stop rowing over who took the serving spoon first at dinner. A spoon tug-of-war ensued, and the spoon, and pasta sauce, ended up on the floor.
The mum was immediately irritated when her children started rowing, and she focused on making the behaviour stop, rather than on helping the kids deal with it properly themselves.
To attune with her children, the mum could have lowered her body to their level and described what she saw, a bit like a commentator, asked a question to understand better, or helped the kids listen to each other.
If her kids didn’t stop the spoon tug-of-war, she could say: ‘I’m taking the spoon for a moment because I can see it might go flying. Now talk to me – what’s going on?’
The idea is that although the children might still be angry at each other, the mother’s non-judgemental questions would give them a chance to practise conflict resolution.
Wright says: “It’s normal to get upset when children aren’t listening. The problem is that when you jump into the ring, your child’s defences go up and her brain goes into fight-or-flight mode. Either she’ll become more adversarial or she’ll squash her ideas because you’ve scared her.
“Meeting her with attunement is the way to engage cooperation. If you approach with a sense that you’re trying to understand and be helpful, and not just order her around, her defences are lowered. Now you can work together.”
2. Limit set
If there’s a limit or reality that applies to the situation, tell your child, and give a brief reason. For example, this could be ‘We have to leave the playground now because it’s getting dark.’
Wright and Turgeon say the limit needs to be clear and factual, and parents should avoid asking a question or just saying ‘no’.
Instead, parents should say what they do want, and what the child can do.
“Avoid using a harsh tone,” advises Turgeon. “Instead, keep your voice calm and informative. It can feel like a constant battle between us and them, but they are meant to test things and, depending on a child’s temperament, it might take one hundred times of testing a limit or hearing a rule before each of the ‘experiments’ is over.”
3. Problem solve
After attuning and setting limits for your child, the aim is to help them see how they can achieve what they intended in an acceptable way.
Try to adopt a tone of voice which suggests you’re in this together, you both have to work out a solution, and you’re open to any ideas. Even though you may be frustrated, try to use humour if at all possible, as that can really help defuse the tension for everyone.
Other tactics include giving your child a ‘follow-up choice’ you can use if they’re still not complying – this could be something like “Do you want to put the toy back, or shall I do it for you?’.
Turgeon adds that if parents use the ALP approach, “You’ll understand how to collaborate with your child, and your job as a parent becomes very clear, logical and doable.”
- Press Association