What to say when your kids aren't listening
“Why do you always talk mean to me and you always talk nice to Lukey?!”
This was my 3 year old daughter, speaking to me. Noticing how I was speaking in a sweet voice to my infant son, while letting her hear the clear irritation in my voice whenever I spoke to her. This was during a time she was adjusting to no longer being an only child, having to share our attention, having our play time interrupted by a new baby who needed to be fed or have his diaper changed, and no longer being carried to bed every night as I was not allowed to carry her after having a c-section. She was crying for attention and connection through her behavior, and I was exhausted, irritated, and impatient. She sensed the difference in how I spoke to her versus her brother and let me know her hurt.
The message was clear. I needed to speak to kids the way you'd like to be spoken to; they are worthy of respect and need our love. Obviously in many situations when we are depleted, tired, overwhelmed, irritated, it is much easier said than done.
I’ve made a list of my go-to phrases that I use with my kids to help keep things positive and respectful and am sharing them with you. Get a printable list of these phrases to keep handy on your fridge, your mirror, anywhere you will see it when you need a reminder.
1.What is your plan for ______?"
Take a break from: "Be careful."
Example: "What do you need to remember when you play at the park?" or "Notice how high that wall is. What is your plan for staying safe while climbing?"
Explained: Kids tune us out when we repeat ourselves again and again. If we say “be careful” about everything, they’ll stop listening. Another problem with this phrase is that it can instill fear and can encourage kids to not explore and take risks (within reason).
2. “Please talk softly."
Take a break from: "Stop yelling!" or "Be Quiet!"
Example: "Please talk softly or use your inside voice.” or “If you would like to scream, please go outside.”
Explained: Some kids are just louder than others. If they have trouble speaking quietly, give them a place where it is acceptable to be loud and also teach them what volume is appropriate for indoors.
3. “Would you like to do it on your own or would you like my help?"
Take a break from: "How many times do I have to ask you?!"
Example: "It's time to go to school. Would you like to put on your shoes yourself, or would you like to do it together?" or "Would you like to get in the car seat by yourself or would you like my help?"
Explained: Most kids have a desire for some control and power over their own lives. Give them limited choices and an opportunity to decide the outcome.
4. “What did you learn from this mistake?"
Take a break from: "You should know better."
Example: "What did you learn from this mistake?" or "What will you do differently next time?"
Explained: Focusing on problem solving is more likely to encourage long term behavior change than shame or punishment ever will. This also teaches kids to use their critical thinking skills.
5. “Please ______________."
Take a break from: "Don't do that!" or "Knock it off!"
Example: "Please pet the dog gently" or "Please let go of the dog’s tail."
Explained: It makes more sense to say what you want your child to do instead of what you don’t want them to do. When you only focus on what not to do, they may not know what to do instead.
6. “Do you want to do it now or in 5 minutes?"
Take a break from: "It’s time to ___”
Example: "Do you guys wanna leave now or play for 5 more minutes, then leave?” “Do you want to brush your teeth now or in 1 minute?”
Why it works: Kids have a hard time stopping what they’re doing when they’re having fun, and love to have some say in this. I use this with my kids ALL the time and they often respond so much better.
7. “Take a breath and think of another way to ask me."
Take a break from: "Stop whining!"
Example: “Take a breath and think of another way to ask me." “Please ask me in a respectful voice.”
Explained: Say this calmly while breathing with them, until they are regulated and able to ask respectfully.
8. “It's okay to be sad. It’s okay to cry"
Take a break from: "Don't be a baby," "Don't Cry." “It’s not a big deal.”
Example: "It's okay to be sad. I would be sad about that too. Let me know how I can help.”
Explained: Kids need to know that ALL emotions are ALWAYS okay, it’s how we respond to the emotions that is either okay or not. Tell yourself that it’s not your job to save your kids from difficult emotions or make them happy. They need to know that emotions are a normal part of life and need to learn how to work through them. Show empathy, validate their feelings, and be there for them while they work through it.
9. “I will always love you no matter what." “Sometimes we get mad at each other but we always love each other.”
Take a break from: "I can’t believe you did that! You should be ashamed of yourself!" or “Do not speak to me like that!”
Example: "I love you no matter what, AND I'd like you to speak respectfully to me.”
Explained: Unconditional Love is part of the core of Positive Discipline. Kids need to know that we love them no matter what, although we may not love their behavior. When kid’s need for love and belonging are met, they are less likely to misbehave in the first place.
10. “I believe in you"
Take a break from: Rescuing; “Let me fix this for you,” or "Why can’t you do anything yourself?”
Example: "I can see how this is tough for you and I believe in you to get through it. I am here to support you if you need ideas on how to handle it.”
Explained: It's important to teach kids to solve their own problems and have confidence in their abilities. Supporting instead of rescuing often takes more time, practice, and patience, but it teaches kids to be capable of handling things on their own.