“This is the fifth time I’ve asked you to hang up your jacket!”
“How many times do I have to tell you, you can’t have cookies until after dinner?”
“If you don’t turn that TV off RIGHT NOW, you’re not going to have any more television for A WEEK!”
Sound familiar? If you’ve uttered these phrases, or something like them, congratulations: you’re a parent. But the minor reassurance of knowing you’re not alone can’t compete with the possibility of a life without these charged situations, a life filled with happy, obedient children who always listen. A fairytale? Sure. But you can get closer to the fantasy, with these tips from Jennifer Kolari. She’s a child and family therapist and the author of Connected Parenting, but we prefer to think of her as a fairy godmother.
She’s given us 7 common reasons why your child might not be listening, and what you can do to change them.
1. Your kid is tired.
As a family therapist, Kolari consistently sees kids who are chronically underslept. It’s hard getting kids to bed on time, she acknowledges, especially if you’re a working parent, but a lot of behavioural issues – particularly around compliance and flexibility – stem from lack of sleep. “Those are the first things to go when you’re tired,” she says. “You get irritable. You get whiny. You get icky. You get negative.” She recommends at least 10 hours a night for kids under 10 years of age, and up to 9.5 hours for teens. Adequate sleep improves mood regulation and reduces anxiety.
2. Your kid is hungry.
We all get hangry from time to time, but if your child is particularly sensitive, “You want to make sure their sugar levels are fairly even throughout the day,” says Kolari. “Make sure they’re getting lots of protein and that they’re eating every couple of hours, and that will absolutely help with resilience and flexibility.”
3. Your kid is startled.
“We tend to yank kids out of the moment all the time,” but paying attention to transitions and offering advance cues will help children adjust. “You say: ‘I’m going to give you a minute to get yourself organized,” says Kolari, “and then if they don’t transition, there’s some kind of natural consequence.”
4. You don’t mean what you say.
Kids respond to healthy, predictable limits, and consistency and consequence are key, says Kolari. If you’ve given her fair warning and your child still won’t leave her computer for dinner, tell her she’ll lose 15 minutes of her computer time tomorrow and make sure to come through the next day. It won’t take many repetitions before she realizes that computer time is a privilege and losing it is a natural consequence of not logging off.
5. You yell.
We all lose our cool from time to time, and while yelling is a common outcome of frustration, it’s not a very useful parenting tool. “Think of a time when you’ve been yelled at,” says Kolari. “When did you go, ‘Oh thank you so much, that was great. I totally understand what I have to do now’? Never.” Instead of repeating the same threat with increasing insistence, provide your children time to comply with your demand and make it clear what will happen if they’d don’t. Then follow through. Consistent, predictable limits and natural consequences will help your kids take you seriously before you lose your cool.
6. Your kid doesn’t understand time the way you do.
Time is an advanced concept, and kids have a different sense of it than we do. “They live in the now, ” says Kolari. Judging time is a cultural skill that requires practice, and it doesn’t help when parents pair phrases like, “in a second,” or “give me a minute,” with wildly varying response times. Kolari recommends following a predictable (but not rigid) daily schedule to help kids predict time’s passage, and using external markers when you discuss units of time. For instance, if you want your son to be dressed in ten minutes, set a timer and instruct him to be ready by the time it dings. Or when he’s in the car and asks how long it will take to arrive, use his favourite television show as reference, saying something like, ‘It will take about as long as an episode of Super Why’.
7. You’re not listening.
“If we want our kids to listen, then we also have to listen,” says Kolari. This doesn’t mean dropping what you’re doing every time your kid speaks, but recognizing that today’s multi-tasking lifestyle isn’t great for nurturing connected relationships. “We want to make sure we have enough time each day with each child where we’re really focused, we’re really present and we’re really hearing them. And often whining and stuff like that will go away if you’ve actually listened to what they have to say.”
Kolari also prescribes “baby time” for her many of her clients. “It’s literally taking a few minutes every day and just gazing in your child’s eyes, and rubbing their nose, and tickling them, and talking to them in baby talk, and just having this delicious moment…” Moments like that flood both child and parent brains with natural reward chemicals, increasing trust and compliance. “And that’s really emotional nutrition for kids.”
For more parenting advice from Jennifer Kolari, see her blog, Connected Parenting or her book, Connected Parenting: Transform your challenging child and build loving bonds for life.