Developing Effective Communication Patterns With Kids

How can we teach our children good listening skills? They seem to have trouble paying attention to instructions and following directions. In my daughter's case, I think she's just defiant most of the time. As for my son, he's very intense and tends to get so locked into television, a book, a videogame, or whatever he's doing that it's almost impossible to pull him away. I find that I'm repeating myself over and over again. Do you have any advice?

The best way to teach your children to listen is to change the way you communicate with them. It’s not uncommon for parents to develop ineffective communication patterns with their kids. These patterns are counterproductive in the sense that, once they’re firmly entrenched, they actually teach kids not to pay attention, to disregard instructions or commands, and to engage in defiant behavior.

How do you reverse this? The first step is to make sure you have your children’s full attention when you’re speaking to them. Never ask a child to do something or give him instructions when he’s watching TV, playing a video game, or engaged in some other kind of activity. First, turn off the TV. Then tell your child to look into your eyes. Only then will you be in a position to issue a clear, understandable command.

Second, make sure your command is backed up by a time deadline and a consequence. Don’t just say, “Johnny, I want you to turn off that TV and clean up your room.” Instead, walk over to the television set, switch if off, get your son’s full attention, and then say something like this: “Johnny, it’s 5:00 o’clock. I want you to put away all of your toys and put your dirty clothes in the hamper by 5:30. I’m going to set the kitchen timer for thirty minutes. When it rings I’ll come to check your work. If you do a good job, I’ll allow you to have an extra half-hour of video game time after dinner tonight. If you haven’t completed your work by 5:30, you won’t be able to play video games at all this evening.” For older kids, you might ask them what a reasonable consequence would be. The more they can own the consequence the better – provided of course it is appropriate to the misbehavior and “painful” enough to discourage repeat offenses .

After that, make sure you follow through with the consequence. If you don’t, you’ll be teaching your son that you don’t mean what you say. It’s not unusual for parents to plead, beg and threaten their kids with statements like, “If I have to tell you one more time, young man, you’re in big trouble!” These statements become meaningless to the child if they’re never backed up by action. Meanwhile, the parent only becomes more and more frustrated by the child’s lack of follow-through. If this pattern is allowed to continue, Mom and Dad may reach the point where they blow up in anger. In some families, this even results in physical or emotional abuse.

Dr. Russell Barkley, one of the nation’s leading experts in parent training, coined a phrase that every parent should remember: “Act, don’t yak.” In other words, if you’re trying to use words, reasons, and threats to get your child to behave, you’re setting yourself up for failure and frustration. If you want to teach a child to listen, follow instructions, and obey your commands, you need to follow through with consequences. And you need to be consistent in implementing those consequences – even when you’re tired or if your child whines, complains, or tries to talk you out of it.

If you need help putting these suggestions into practice, don’t hesitate to give our staff a call. Our counselors would be more than happy to discuss your question with you over the phone. They can also provide you with referrals to qualified family therapists in your area who specialize in communication issues.


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