When an adult wants a child to listen to them, they usually have two kinds of things they want them to hear. Either …
(A) they want the child to do something – turn something off, bring something to them, pick something up from the floor, get their lunchbox, clean their teeth, or,
(B) they want to have a deep and meaningful conversation about something that is really important to their personal or family values and they want to tell the young person they are concerned or worried about something. They want to impart certain tips or a viewpoint – strangers, friendships, smoking, drugs, or relationships.
Feeling heard by a child, whether it is to tell them to do something or to impart deep and meaningful advice, has a lot to do with how you approach them and assist them to manage their attention.
When an adult wants a child to listen because they want them to do something straight away, psychologists call this “compliance”. When an adult has asked a child to do something and the child has not done what they asked, we call this “noncompliance”. Noncompliance is acommon complaint of parents or adults caring for children.
For many years now, there has been good psychological research on the best ways to assist your child to comply with your requests. A lot of the bits that need to change are actually to do with the ways that the child is given the request. In the literature, this is called a “command”. If you really want to increase a child’s rate of compliance, it will take some effort on the adult’s part.
- Get your child’s attention. I’ve talked before about the complexities involved with all the processes required to allow a child to screen out unimportant things from their attention and respond to important things. Now in this day and age, you have to compete with a lot of interesting stuff – computers, tablets, phones, television, music or even friends. However, before you ask a child to do something, you need to make sure that your child is paying attention to you before you tell them what you’d like them to hear.
- Go to them,
- Use their name and
- Establish eye contact.
I’m afraid that yelling at them from the kitchen across the house to wherever they might be watching their favourite DVD or playing their favourite game will not enhance the likelihood that a child will do what you want them to do.
- State what you want clearly – you will need to be sure that you do not use too many words and that you watch the tone of what you say.
- Maintain eye contact until the child has started the behaviour.
- Be sure to let your child know that you have noticed that they have done what you have asked.
As a child gets older, you still need to be sure that you have their attention when you want them to listen to you. In a dangerous situation, most adults will have an Adrenalin-fueled tone to their voice that will assist a child to attend, but in day to day family life the adults can help a child to learn to listen by being mindful of what they are competing with when it comes to a child’s attention.
If the child is engaged in something that is really interesting to them, you will have a lot to compete with in order to be attended to and heard.
If you are in a bit of a negative cycle and you feel like you are not being heard, sometimes it’s best to start again and choose your timing wisely. If it’s a child’s favourite television show, wait until the show has ended or until there is an advertising break and then approach the child.
If your child is playing a game online, you really need to get to know the sort of game they are playing. A child can put a lot of effort into some games and if they miss a crucial part because an adult wants them to do something right at a hot time in the game, then the likelihood of them listening to you or complying will be low. When your child approaches you for time on a game, ask them about the game and how long they need to play and help them budget their time around chores and bedtimes. They may be best to put the game off until say, after dinner, rather than have it likely interrupted around chore o’clock.
If the sort of listening that you would like your child to do is the deep and meaningful kind, then your strategy should be a little different.
Deep and meaningful conversations are best done one-on-one with nothing getting in the way of anyone’s attention – yours or theirs.
With a younger child, it can be handy to share a book together – even more handy if the book is about the subject that you wish to broach. Then, in discussing the book, you can listen to your child’s take on things and then add any wise advice that you would like to impart. Other quite shared activities could be constructing toys, colouring-in or some sort of repetitive handicraft.
Sometimes, with a teen, a road trip or a walk can be a good time for a deep and meaningful conversation. If the topic is a bit of an embarrassing ones, I think many teens feel better talking while you both look ahead at the road instead of having to face you head on.
Paying attention to a child’s attention and helping them to screen out competing stimuli, can really help you be heard.
Of course, if you catch your child attending well to an adult, be sure that you tell them that you liked that way they attended to that person. Oh and, as always, be careful that you model good listening, too.