How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen, According to 14 Parenting Experts

The way you talk to your children can have a significant impact on their lives.

But what if you’re having a hard time communicating with your little kids?

We’ve compiled some of the best ways to improve your communication with your children, as advised by parenting experts.

Table of Contents

Dr. Rick Capaldi

Rick Capaldi

Family Therapist | Co-Founder, Outreach Concern, Inc. | President, Capaldi & Associates |
Author, 21st Century Parenting

What’s great about the Internet, TV, and Radio? You can hit the mute button when you’ve had enough. You know when that annoying commercial comes on or when you’re bombarded with popups, or the volume on the TV goes up selling you something you have no interest in. So, you just hit the switch and your back in control.

In some families, parents sound like those annoying commercials to their children. In attempting to address an issue, they sound like that repetitious, loud advertisement, commercializing their request. In many instances, their disinterested listener just reaches for the parent mute button.

Do kids turn the parent volume control off because parents are boring? Possibly, but the real reason is that parents overdo it. I call it zinging – it’s those communication patterns parents tag on to their message, that in some cases, they’re unaware of, but cause their young listener to reach for the off switch.

Zinging in most cases supports the child’s lack of responsiveness and in some situations, results in accelerating a child’s emotional temperature, further distancing their parent from getting the response they desire.

It is the Maximizing, Minimizing, Catastrophizing, Generalizing, Commercializing, Moralizing and Sermonizing parents wrap around their message that results in their child looking for a place to hide.

This parental delivery system often stimulates so much emotionally, it results in losing the actual point of the message as well as causing the child to defend themselves and become even more non-participative.

Zinging presents a number of problems, all impacting effective parent/child communication. It waters-down a parent’s real message, creates more distance between you and your child and suggests the child’s not capable of changing their behavior. Finally, when used consistently, gives the child the idea they’re not capable, so they eventually turn parents off.

So, let’s eliminate zinging, develop healthy parent/child partnerships based on open, honest communication.

Get your child’s attention

That means getting them to put down their cell phones, so timing is everything. Remember, your goal is to get your child to respond and keep responding. Remember, the worst time to address an issue is when you’re in the middle of an argument.

When emotional temperatures are high, no one’s really listening, sometimes just protecting their position. If your goal is to change a behavior, response or just get your child to complete a task, emotional temperatures need to be low and more welcoming to a problem-solving conversation.

Sometimes kids take a defensive posture when confronted, ready to turn you off. So, begin with something they’re doing well, some success they’ve had recently, “Hey Sally, I noticed you did great on that math exam, I know you really crammed for it, great job”.

This gets them to let their guard down providing an opening for you to slip-in your request or directive. “When you take the car out, would you remember to run by the gas station and fill it up?” Moving them off their defensive posture, gets them to be more receptive to your request.

When providing direction, be specific, short and to the point

Don’t attack or generalize or pile on issues that can be overwhelming. Request the change you want to see, ask for clarification and keep the conversation from being one-sided.

Remember you’re seeking participation. Your goal is not to make them lose but for both of you to win. It’s all about talking with, not at your child, establishing two-way communication that’s mutually beneficial for all involved now and in their future.

Dr. Amna Husain, MD, FAAP

Amna Husain

Board-certified Pediatrician, Georgetown University Hospital | Owner, Pure Direct Pediatrics

We’ve all been there. Frustrated with our nagging and bribery to get our kids to do what we ask. As pediatricians, we know this doesn’t work. The way we speak with our children changes as they get older which is huge learning curve for not just our kids but also the parents!

Teach them to say how they feel

For younger children 2-5 yo, I recommend not only modeling behavior (as children typically learn from watching) but also teaching children early on to say how they feel.

For example, verbalize “It looks like you’re feeling sad.” It will allow your children to approach their feelings in a more thoughtful way as they get older.

Give necessary attention

Another important tip I always tell parents is to bring a lot of attention to your children when they are doing something you like such as eating their food or reading a book and remove your attention when they are doing something you do not like. Directed attention has a way of increasing bad behavior!

Listen more, talk less

For older children, I recommend using more motivational interviewing techniques to tap into more of their intrinsic motivation. With this age group (6-11 yo), I recommend listening more and talking less so your children share more of their thoughts rather than feel their parent is nagging or punishing them for not completing their chores.

One of my favorite tips is to use the 1 to 10 scale and ask the child how ready they are to do the task/chore and follow up with why didn’t they pick a lower number.

I learned this from author Daniel Pink, and I’ve found it to be a great way for children to reflect on why they didn’t pick the lower number which is essentially where he or she will tell you and his or herself the reasons they should do the task/chore.

I’ve learned that at this age, the best way to talk so children will listen is to change your thinking. Think of inspiring him/her to realize why he/she should versus forcing them to see your way, you’ll be more successful!

Dr. J. Paul Rand, MBA, CPCN

Paul Rand

Psychologist | Researcher | Strategy Advisor | Performance Coach

The following are a summary of tips from the research that includes evaluation against psychological research and data.

The primary guiding principle for all parents to remember is that your children are your “living legacy.”

To this end, it is important that parents remember that our duty is to enable the healthy development of our children, defined by children for children, with parents as Shepard to keep them safe but always remembering each child is a unique little human.

Interact at their level

The first step to teaching a child how to grow as a leader in life and value the family environment starts with a willingness to literally “get down to their level; see the world through their eyes.”

Children will respond emotionally and verbally when you demonstrate a willingness to interact (play, read, and write) in their “normal” ground level environment.

Use positive-forward focus communication

Focus on routinely emphasizing success, but do not confuse this with coddling. Challenge a child to think, breath, and focus on their effort to “overcome hurdles.”

This can be as simple as being at their level, encouraging them to successfully climb on to a couch, or build blocks. do not be afraid to encourage them to Stop. Think. Breath. Focus on trying again.

Celebrate their success but be patient to let them learn to think and act on their own by using communication to help guide their focus, not do it for them. As a child develops their self-efficacy they will start to recognize when relying on and communicating to an adult is needed.

Routine

Children love routine. Make a habit of open dialogue with children. Specifically, promote discussion about the day’s learning at dinner.

Encourage them to articulate to you what a night-time story means to them. Be willing to listen and learn about your child to create healthy respect. The stronger the routine, the better communication with children will be despite their age.

Embrace the dreaded ‘why?’

Children are learning sponges. They learn far more than adults in fact! The worst thing a parent can do is dissuade a child’s curiosity.

All of us with young children know the pain of being asked “why” repeatedly. However, learning, business, and education sciences demonstrate that by simply asking “why” five times helps our brain analyze vast data to understand “root-cause.”

Embrace their curiosity and after the fifth time they ask, “Why?” only then should you re-orient them to thinking and expressing “why do you think?”

This requires what I call the “Speed of Patience” but remember you are raising your living legacy. The more patient you are with them, the more fulfilled you will feel in your role creating a healthy family environment.

Jennifer Daffon, PsyD, LMHC

Jennifer Daffon

Licensed Mental Health Counselor | Owner, Emotesy Child and Family Counseling Services, PLLC

The first thing any parent has to be sure of is that they have their little one’s attention

Littles already have short attention spans due to their current developmental stage, that trying to split attention between a parent and a toy or something else is almost an immediate setup for failure.

Keep the conversation brief, providing as little room for gray areas as possible

Often parents get frustrated when they think they’re giving a straight forward direction but in actuality, it’s a set up for power struggles. For example, “Can you clean your room?” is met with “No.” He or she isn’t necessarily being defiant, they are actually using one of the choices you gave them, even though you didn’t know you did. “Can you…” implies there is a yes or no answer.

The number one rule when working with children of any age is don’t provide an option you’re not willing to accept/follow through with. A more effective request would be, “I need you to clean your room.” This eliminates the question component and makes it a direct request.

Dr. Carole Lieberman

Carole Lieberman

Child Psychiatrist | Parenting Expert |
Author, Lions and Tigers, and Terrorists, Oh My! How to Protect Your Child in a Time of Terror

The way to talk so little kids will listen is to be authentic, express emotion and explain things in ways that they can understand

Describe things in pictures that they can visualize and relate to. For example, when I was writing my book, I had to figure out how to explain a terrorist to a child – and how to do so without frightening them. I described a terrorist as being like a big bully on the playground. Now every child can relate to that.

 

Allison Gervais, LMFT

Allison Gervais

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Three tips to talk so little kids will listen:

Praise for good behavior

The mistake parents make is to praise (“good girl!” or “you are so smart!”) without letting the child know what they did to deserve the praise. Instead, “I’m so proud of you for putting your toys away in the box after I asked you.”

The child will react positively to the praise, know why s/he is getting it and do more of it.

“Active Ignore”

Ignore bad behavior and be patient. If this does not distinguish the behavior, turn your back, talk in the first person and let your child know you will not engage in play until their negative behavior ends.

This may increase the tantrum, but inevitably it stops. If not, time-outs are the next step. You must follow through every time for this to work.

Anticipatory praise

If you know your child will repeat negative behavior, such as standing in a chair. Provide praise in advance. “I want to let you know how proud I am of you when you sit in your seat during lunch.”

Focus on the “do’s rather than the “don’t.” This technique sets your child up for success. Don’t forget to praise the child again at the end of the activity if s/he has good behavior, and be specific.

Lauren Mosback, MA, LPC, NCC

Lauren Mosback

Licensed Professional Counselor & Licensed Behavior Specialist, Lauren Mosback Counseling Services

As a counselor who uses play therapy as one approach while counseling, I see daily how children will listen when you first listen to them. What I mean by this is understanding and participating in the type of play and conversation that they enjoy.

Take an interest in their interests and connect with them

Does your child love to make art? Then paint a picture together with them. Is your child always talking about bugs? Carve out some time to read an insect encyclopedia together. Does your child love jungle animals? Do they enjoy building structures out of lincoln logs? Why not build a lincoln log cabin with them to house their toy animals and then play with them together!

It’s important to take the time to connect. Kids learn through modeling, so when adults engage with and listen to kids, children are likely to mirror this behavior and listen too.

Provide positive reinforcement, especially verbal praise

When a child does listen, acknowledge this and praise their behavior. When you verbally acknowledge positive behaviors, such as listening, you will see more of it.

Build a good relationship with children

Kids choose to ignore adult requests for a myriad of different reasons. However, I have found that the key is to build a relationship with children.

By bonding with kids, they have fun with you and feel valued. Having a strong relationship will diffuse power struggles that may arise between a child and an adult. By spending uninterrupted time together, you begin to like, respect and understand one another’s personality and interests.

You enjoy one another’s company and because children learn to value and respect this relationship, they want to listen.

Many young children become absorbed in what they are doing and have a difficult time redirecting their attention. You can help redirect their attention by offering a light tap on the shoulder with a calm verbal request. In addition, getting down to eye level and making eye-contact, along with your request can be helpful in ensuring a child has heard you.

Calmly connect with the child before they deliver their request

Often times adults expect kids to listen the first time. This can be especially important, in particular when it comes to safety rules. However, it’s important for adults to remember that for kids, it can be extremely tough to break from something they are focused on.

Adults are the same way. If we’re watching a great movie or reading an interesting article, it’s frustrating to get interrupted or to be told to stop. Yet oftentimes, we expect children who don’t have fully formed brains and impulse control to quickly and easily break from their task and listen calmly and respectfully. It’s unrealistic to expect that children can behave in a manner that even adults struggle with.

For example, you might say, “I really love the art you’re working on, but it’s time to go to school. You can finish your artwork when you get home today.”

This will absolutely help them listen! They know you understand what they’re doing is important to them and you’re reassuring them that they can complete this task at a later time. Then when they do listen, you can offer them a high-five and tell them that they did an awesome job listening and you’re proud of them. This will help to reinforce the positive behavior of listening.

Anastasia Gavalas, MS, SDA

Anastasia Gavalas

Speaker | Humanitarian | Child Expert | Founder, Wing It Parenting

Parents have to learn to talk less and listen more if they want their little kids to listen

When parents venture thoughtfully into conversations with their children, they have a better chance that their communication will influence their child’s behavior. Children don’t need a lot of words spewed at them.

Parents who remain thoughtful in their talking by asking reflective questions and remaining open have a better chance that their children will listen. Children who feel heard will, most likely, go on to be thoughtful about their future decisions as well.

Stay aware of what your body language conveys

Children are natural-born interpreters. They hear what adults say. Even more so, they watch how adults act. Your expressions communicate strong messages.

Be aware of your intentions and how they translate into words. Children pay attention to this. They might not always be able to express what they’re feeling, but they sense whether or not someone has good intentions.

Exchange ideas through courageous conversations

Children need to be seen, heard, and respected. They need to know that what they feel and express matters. A conscious exchange of ideas can reach your child on a deep level that’s more powerful than a million times you tell your child to do a certain task.

I refer to these healthy exchanges with children “courageous conversations.” That’s how you get kids to listen at every age. This involves clarity of expression, open-ended questions, good listening, wait time, and intuitive navigation.

Directing children to express things that are not organic simply to satisfy someone else will eventually mute their innate wisdom. Children can perceive a parent who jumps in to answer questions or leads their child to say certain things as condescending, which in turn propagates doubt in their own ability to communicate.

Children advance when they’re provided with the freedom to think, speak, and make decisions for themselves at all stages of their development.

Those who have the autonomy to express their ideas develop a stronger sense of self and confidence in their core, and learn how to express themselves in the most productive way.

Sherrie MacLean, RECE

Sherrie MacLean

National Director of Operations, Tiny Hoppers

First and foremost, you want to speak to kids with respect

Too often, do adults shout or order directions to children instead of speaking to them with respect. As an adult, we would not respond to a person who did not show us respect. To gain and teach respect to a child, we must show it as well.

To do so, remain calm and be positive with your words and body language.

It’s also important to be at the child’s level — don’t tower over them and talk down. Get down to their level and make eye contact, smile and then speak. Since you’ll now be right in front of them, there is no need for a loud voice, as your regular or soft voice will work just fine.

Nobody likes to be ordered around, so choose your words wisely

It’s also essential to let the child speak, as making sure the conversation isn’t one-sided is a great way to make the child listen. Keep it short and straightforward, as children have fast-growing brains, and their attention span isn’t likely to be lengthy.

Also, don’t forget to use their first name, as it will go a long way in keeping a child’s attention. Lastly, always remember to thank the child for carrying forth whatever task you had asked for — this shows respect and will help with the next time you ask them for something again.

Elisabeth Stitt, CCPC

Elisabeth Stitt

Educator | Parenting Coach

Engage in your kid’s imagination

Little kids still have easy access to their imagination. That makes engaging their imagination a shoo-in for getting them to listen. This is especially true because kids today have much less time for free play, so they are especially engaged when their parents step into their world with them.

For example, a mother was struggling to get her kindergartener out the door every morning. Her daughter kept stopping to play instead of getting dressed.

Following the suggestion to be more playful in the mornings, this mom asked her daughter to play pretend. “Let’s pretend,” she asked, “that we are Elsa’s and Anna’s maids and that we have to get ready quickly ourselves so that we can wait on Elsa and Anna!”

Then, when helping her daughter pull her t-shirt on over her head, Mom would say things like, “Here’s your maid’s blouse. Let me tie your apron on while you button it up.” She would mime tying and apron, and her daughter would mime buttoning her shirt up. Of course, the first day, Mom helped her daughter more than she would normally have to (but with a lot less nagging).

Eventually, however, the daughter was so fulling engaged in her role of getting Elsa and Anna’s day off to a great start that Mom could leave her to get on with it because she had “to prepare the royal breakfast.” As long as Mom spoke to her in the role of fellow maid, her daughter ran to do her mother’s bidding.

Parents can also use their imagination on the spur of the moment.

Time to pick up the blocks? Mom might ask, “Are you going to pick up your blocks like a robot or are you going to be Harry Potter and zap them to their place back on the shelf?”

Kid wriggling in their chair at dinner, Mom might say, “This is air traffic control to Commander One. Commander One, please sit down with your seat-belt fastened: You are cleared for landing.”

Time to go brush teeth? Mom might ask, “Are you going to fly to the bathroom or chug like a choo-choo down the hall?”

In all these cases, Mom has the child’s attention and interest. While using his imagination to embody the character, he is less likely to refuse to do something.

Related: Best Parenting Books

Charissa West

Charissa West

High School Teacher | Parenting Blogger, The Wild, Wild West Parenting Blog

One important thing to utilize to get kids to listen to you is proximity

Even though it may be more convenient to give your instructions from across the room (or perhaps even yell them down the stairs or from another part of the house), this is less effective. Getting close to your child, and ideally, making eye contact will significantly improve the chances of your instructions being heard and obeyed.

Another thing that parents should avoid is shouting or raising their voice

As a parent, I certainly understand the temptation (and this has always been a struggle for me personally), but speaking loudly is generally less effective than using a calm, measured voice.

In fact, using a quiet voice is actually the most effective because it requires your child to listen more attentively to understand you. To do this, make sure you have your child’s attention, then get down to their level and speak in a calm, quiet voice that’s softer than how you would normally speak in a casual conversation.

If what you want to say to your child is corrective in nature, try to do so in a way that explains the behavior you want to see

For example, rather than saying “Don’t run in the house,” explain what you want your child to do, such as, “Please walk when you’re inside.”

Furthermore, try to do this in a way that fosters connection, especially if you feel like you’re frequently correcting or redirecting your child’s behavior. Touch them on the shoulder, give them a hug, or find some other way to affirm that while you are unhappy with the behavior, you still love your child.

Samantha Radford, Ph.D.

Samantha Radford

Public Health Expert | Parenting Blogger, Evidence-based Mommy

My biggest piece of advice would be to not try to talk while your child is in the middle of a meltdown

Be there for your child during a tantrum (don’t ignore her or scold her), and after she’s calm, reconnect through empathy. “Wow, you were really upset when your brother took your toy!”

Confirming that you understand how your child feels will make her more receptive to what you say next. Simple, short phrases are most effective. “And brothers are not for hitting! Can you tell him how you felt when he took your toy?”

These kinds of exchanges may feel strange at first, but with practice, you’ll find that you’re connecting better with your child and that they are more likely to hear what you have to say!

Jaymi Torrez

Jaymi Torrez

Special Education Teacher | Parenting Blogger, The Salty Mamas

Have you ever seen a child in a full tantrum because they didn’t get what they wanted fast enough? Or maybe they’re in a puddle of tears because we don’t understand what they’re asking for.

Small children often get frustrated because they think we don’t understand what they’re feeling or what they want. They have big feelings and strong opinions, and they don’t always understand that they need to wait to get what they want.

To help them feel validated, parents and caregivers can repeat kids’ desires and feelings back to them

Narrate how you’re trying to solve the problem in real-time, along with naming kids’ emotions. Even something as simple as saying, “Caleb is frustrated because he can’t find his tiger. Let’s look for it together. Tiger? Where are you?” can help to calm kids down and get them on the same team as their parents.

Grace E. Olugbodi

Grace Olugbodi

Author | Founder, Easy Math Skills

Kids have the same needs as many other adults; as other humans. They want to be loved, treated fairly and crave attention. They enjoy dedicated time with their parents and enjoy spending time with their families.

As a mother of two myself and have been in the Creative Education Industry for almost 20 years, I know that children also love to be treated special.

If you are a parent, you will likely have been in situations before, where your child did not listen to you. There are a few simple tips I want to share with you regarding how to talk so little kids will listen, a lot of which you or any parent can adopt easily.

When kids do not want to listen, it can be quite frustrating for parents and quite worrying. They do it because it gives them some power over our reaction to the things they do and their behavior.

To help little kids listen more, parents need to examine themselves first and do more in terms of being present

Too many parents are often stressed, and not present enough. This is understandable because there may be other siblings that parents need to spend time with too. Having said that, the simple ways I show to parents here will help your kids listen more. It’s all about creating that bond and understanding between you and your child. It’s about your child feeling reassured that you are on their side.

The basic human need for attention is one that needs to be satisfied for kids. After all, they are only little. They are little angels. Bless them.

As a parent, change begins with you. It is important to assess yourself first. How do you communicate and relate with your kids? Are you always stressed, directing, ordering or sounding uncooperative? Is it a “you against them” sort of situation all the time?

Do you make time to actually play with them and build that bond? Do you have special, set periods during which you give them your undivided attention? Do you play meaningfully with them, like do fun activities and play board games as opposed to yet more screen time?

Here are some simple tips that any parent can practice at home and then permanently fit into their daily routines easily.

  • Reduce your stress – it tells on your kids.
  • Sound helpful and supportive when you talk to them.
  • Have empathy when relating to kids.
  • Try not to yell. I know this is tough, as this tends to be our first inclination or reaction. However, not yelling is doable with determination and some creativity.
  • Put them in charge of small decisions in your home and give them some responsibility to keep them busy.
  • Be a friend and not a boss.
  • Give them more one to one attention. Quality time with every child is key. You only need about 10 to 15 minutes a day to make a big difference.

In summary, kids wanting to listen will reduce your worry and help you build a more meaningful and rich relationship with your kids. It will be one of your biggest payoffs as a parent because the positive effects are long-lasting.