Getting your kids to listen and talk

“Dr. Rastogi, how do I get my kids to listen to me?” This is one question I get asked most frequently, both professionally and socially!

Although as adults we often pride ourselves at being excellent communicators at work and with friends, one patient said that with his own kids he was alternating between “talking to the wall or yelling at them.”

A parent might be saying something urgent and time sensitive but the children pretend to not hear, forget it in an instant, or (my favorite) put their iPod earphones on!!

At other times the parents seem desperate to receive an answer to a critical question (ANY answer, please!) but the children act like they don’t comprehend your language. They switch off. Or they respond in monosyllables.

So how do we get them to sit down, tune in and take it in? How do we get them to talk?

Often, long standing family structures and established patterns of communication need to be re-examined in families. This means understanding what the conversations signify to the parents vs. their children.

We need to also look at how our communication with our partners, parents, and even co-workers feeds into how we talk with our children. What is our body-language, tone and timing when we try to get the kids to listen? And are WE listening to them when they do talk?

While some of this exploration is best done with a family therapist who specializes in working with families, here are some things we can do at home:

  1. Eat dinner together several nights of the week. This can be a time to reconnect as a family, catch up with each other, and when texting is not allowed!
  2. At dinner ask each other open-ended questions to get those adolescents to open up. “What did you learn at your band practice?” “How is the new kid at school doing?” If someone replies with “Not much/Don’t know/Mmm-hmm”, move on. Family members can remain silent but they must stay at the table for 20-30 minutes.
  3. Establish relaxing rituals. If it’s cold or rainy outside, or just a slow weekend, do a “read-in.” A few pillows, popcorn and cuddling while reading together makes younger kids very happy. Create a “family cooking time” every Sunday afternoon. Or a family movie night every few weeks.
  4. Spend time in the proximity of your children. Proximity leads to opening up. With an older teen, grab your own laptop and sit in the same room as they type away or work on homework. Offer to drive them to their violin practice or to their friend’s place. Watch football with them. Use some of that time to talk. And listen.

Remember that open, two-way communication takes a while to establish. Be patient with your child. And be patient with yourself. It takes time and effort to re-do old patterns.