Listening to Your Kids

Listening to your kids is a skill many parents may not have, but can easily acquire.

From the WebMD Archives

Are you really listening to your kids? And are they listening to you?

They say: "I was just holding these cigarettes for a friend." You say: "YOU ARE GROUNDED FOR LIFE. DON'T YOU KNOW THAT SMOKING WILL KILL YOU!"

You say: "Don't do drugs. Don't drink alcohol. Don't smoke." Your child hears: blahblahblahblah

Is it possible to avoid these constant disputes and disconnects with your kids? Definitely, experts tell WebMD. You absolutely can talk so your kids will listen, and listen so your kids will talk.

But how do you crack the code of youth -- without resorting to "LOL," "BRB," "TTYL," or other irksome -- but popular -- kidisms? Here's what the experts have to say about listening to your kids and getting them to listen to you.

Listen closely.

To start with, listening to your kids makes them more likely to listen to you, experts tell WebMD.

"The most important way to talk so your child will listen is to listen to your child," says New York City psychoanalyst Gail Saltz, MD, author of several books, including Getting Smart About Your Private Parts. "If they feel listened too, they are more likely to be able to listen and will feel more understood, have more trust, and be more interested in what you have to say."

Mark Kopta, PhD, chairman and professor of psychology at the University of Evansville, in Indiana, agrees. "You are much more likely to get a child to listen to you if first you listen to them," he says. "My golden rule is, 'When you have trouble with a child, listen to them first and then empathize with them.'"

Here's how: "The first thing I would do is listen to the child or teenager, then reflect back how you think they are feeling, and then move into the issue at hand," he advises. For example, if you catch a child with a pack of cigarettes, ask him about it and listen to what he says. Next, encourage your child to talk about his feelings, and reflect the feelings back as accurately as you can. Perhaps he tried smoking because his friends were all doing it, or because he wanted to appear older -- two powerful impulses for impressionable preteens and teens. He may have the cigarettes for a whole host of reasons, so it is important not to jump the gun. Once you have determined what is going on, you will be better able to deal with the situation.

Listen to yourself first.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), it is important to consider what you plan to say before you respond to your child. Parents often make harsh statements out of anger or frustration. You may not really mean the angry words, but your child may never forget them. "Thoughtless comments or jokes that seem incidental to you may be hurtful to your child," the AAP states. "Phrases like 'You stupid idiot,' 'That's a dumb question,' or 'Don't bother me' make your child feel worthless and unwanted and may seriously damage his self-esteem." If you constantly criticize or put your child down, he may hesitate to ask you questions or listen to what you have to say.

Don't lecture.

When you do have the floor, "lecturing is not a good way to get your child to listen," Saltz says. Instead, shoot for "engaging talk and talk that asks what they think and fosters their own thinking process and autonomy," she says. For example, "Ask your children, 'What do you think about drugs, alcohol, sex, or the way the teacher handled a particular situation?,' and that way you can begin a discussion where there will be give-and-take and they will also be more likely to listen to your thoughts," Saltz says.

"Ask teens questions and let them draw their own conclusions -- such as, 'What are the bad things about taking drugs?' -- as opposed to saying, 'These are the bad things about taking drugs,'" Kopta adds. "This all goes back to a teen's desire for independence."

Be around -- a lot.

"Everybody wants there to be a good setting and time to have an important talk with their children, but kids operate on their own timetable, so the most important thing is making the time to be around," Saltz tells WebMD. "You want opportunities that don't feel too high-pressured, like 'now we are going to have a talk.'"

If you are broaching an uncomfortable topic like drugs or sex, face-to-face conversations may make things more difficult. Instead, try talking in a car where your child can look at the back of your head or during a walk when you are side-to-side.

Give your child space.

When your child begins answering you with one syllable answers, take a step back, Saltz says. "Ask them what they are feeling, which will hopefully help them reflect on why they are giving one syllable answers," she says. Then say, "I'd like to talk about it, but if you feel you cannot at this moment, we can regroup in a couple of hours or tomorrow."

Inspire your child.

"So often parents say 'don't get pregnant, don't get a sexually transmitted disease, and don't do drugs,' and those are three depressing conversations," points out Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a New York-based family and relationship counselor and host of The Learning Channel's Sholom in the Home.

"What inspiration would any kids take from those conversations?," asks Boteach, author of several books, including the forthcoming Sholom in the Home. "Instead, try to have inspiring conversations that give children a sense of what is important," says this father of eight. "When your kids come home, ask them what happened in school and have a story for them."

Don't yell.

"Be stern, but if you yell at kids that shows you are out-of-control and you create a non-peaceful environment," Boteach says. "There has to be a calm environment at home." Remember, that children thrive in stability. "Talk to your kids, give them strict rules, explain them, and punish children when necessary, but don't lose control and yell," he advises.

Emphasize the positive.

Make the positives equal the negatives, Kopta says. "People rarely change because of negative consequences, otherwise no one would smoke, drink or overeat," he tells WebMD. "It's not enough to tell a child not to smoke, drink, or take drugs unless you present alternative things to give them good feelings -- like sports, music, art, and relations with others.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Gail Saltz, MD, psychoanalyst, New York City; author, Getting Smart About Your Private Parts. Mark Kopta, PhD, chairman and professor of psychology, University of Evansville, in Indiana. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, family and relationship counselor; host, The Learning Channel's Sholom in the Home. American Academy of Pediatrics: "Parenting Skills: Sharing and Caring."

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