It wasn’t the only time I saw it, but it was definitely one of the most blatant and extreme examples. It happened while I was visiting the home of a single mother and her two sons. She complained that her sons “did not listen” to her. On my first visit she provided a hint about why they were “not listening.” One of her sons had neglected to complete a chore. His mother asked why he had not done it. He simply said, “I forgot.” His mother then began to expound upon his irresponsibility, how he always forgot, and was never to be trusted. Thirty seconds… forty-five seconds…a minute…and she was still lecturing. I watched her son respond to her barrage of instruction & anger. He quit listening after her first one or two sentences. He looked away. Then he checked his watch. His eyes drifted to the ceiling and then to the window. Finally, he simply stared into the abyss as his mother shouted into the void.
This exchange offered several examples of the wrong thing to do, things that resulted in her son not listening. Consider the alternatives we suggested to her.
- Address behavior not character. This mother labeled her son irresponsible, forgetful, and untrustworthy. Our children internalize the labels we use of them, especially the ones we shout at them in anger or frustration. Eventually, they will believe those labels true and begin to live them out. Their expectations of themselves will match the self-concept based on the labels we’ve used to describe them. So, no name-calling. Beware your assumptions. Do not label your children’s character. Instead, address their behavior, their actions. Objectively describes the behavior you do not like rather than make a subjective judgment about their person. Explain the consequences of the behavior. Talk about how the behavior impacts those around them. Address the behavior, not their character.
- Avoid permanent markers of frequency like “always” and “never.” For one thing, they are not true. There are often (dare I say, “always”) exceptions. Additionally, permanent markers of frequency limit the possibility of change. After all, if it “always” happens, it will “never” change. Instead, use temporary markers of frequency like “sometimes,” “this time,” “at this moment,” “occasionally,” maybe even “often.” Your child will more readily listen to you when you stop using permanent markers of frequency. And you indirectly acknowledge that there are exceptions to the problem behavior as well. Finally, and most importantly, you leave the possibility of change open.
- Keep it clear and concise. Don’t lecture or nag. Your child will stop listening. Say what you have to say in a clear, understandable way. Keep it short. Say it concisely and with brevity. Then stop. Your child can hear and understand. The more you talk, the less they listen. The more you lecture, the more likely they go away talking about your behavior rather than thinking about their own behavior.
These three simple communication actions can change the way your child hears and responds to you. They will put an end to you shouting into the void and your child staring into the abyss. Instead, you will speak to your child and your child will more likely listen.