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9 Tips for Talking to Kids and Grandkids Who Typically Tune You Out, From Childcare Experts

Learn to speak their language. 


Ever feel like that heart-to-heart you’re trying to have with your child or grandchild is going in one ear and out the other? You’re not alone. Almost all parents and grandparents feel frustrated by this inability to communicate at one point or another. While it can be hard for kids to see where we’re coming from at times, it also can be tough for us to put ourselves in their shoes. Follow our expert tips to learn how to talk to — not at — your child or grandchild so that your message get through loud and clear.

1. Get up close.

“One of the biggest mistakes parents make is to talk to their kids from another room,” notes John Mayer, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and parenting consultant based in Chicago. It’s natural to tune someone out when they’re not even within eyesight. Walk over to your child and make eye contact, which also means asking him or her to put down a device, be it a phone or computer. “It’s a lot harder to ignore someone when they are standing in front of you, demanding your attention,” says Mayer.

2. Don’t yell.

“Once you raise your voice, you’ve already lost your child’s attention,” says Mayer. Think about how you would respond in a similar situation, he adds. If your boss came up and started yelling at you, you’d probably start to tune out as well. But if he calmly asked you for your help, you’d likely be a lot more willing to do what he wants. In our house, I notice that the moment I stop yelling and start talking calmly, the more my children will actually pay attention to what I’m saying.

3. Avoid criticism.

“Kids tune you out if you are constantly criticizing them or if you’ve said the same thing many times before,” notes Carole Lieberman, M.D., psychiatrist and author of Lions and Tigers and Terrorists, Oh My! How to Protect Your Child in a Time of Terror. “To get your child to listen: Take them into a quiet place with few distractions, get them to look at you eye to eye, be direct, and express the importance of what you’re saying with the tone of your voice.”

4. Don’t be a broken record.

“Sometimes it can seem like we’re teaching our children not to listen, simply by repeating the same request over and over again,” says Roseanne Lesack, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. If you tell your child to do something, like clear the table or make his bed, give him some time to comply and then offer to help do it together. “This way, you can make sure they follow through without having to repeat yourself over and over again.”

5. Remember that boys and girls are different.

“There is a fundamental difference between most boys and girls when it comes to communication,” observes Fran Walfish, Psy.D., a child, couple, and family psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, California. After about age 7, girls tend to become more verbal; boys veer to more visual communications. Emphasize actions (like washing your hands before coming to the dinner table) while praising every increment in your child’s autonomy.

6. Be a detective.

Nine times out of 10, in my house, if I ask one of my kids how his or her day went, I’ll get a one-word answer (usually “OK,” “fine,” or “good.”) Too often, that’s about the extent of the conversation. The key, says Walfish, is to ask more thought-provoking questions, such as “What was your biggest challenge today?” or “What was your favorite thing that you learned about at school?” Once you get the conversation flowing, it’s easy to ask follow-up questions and get more information.

7. Practice conversation skills.

Use dinnertime to discuss your day with your children,” says Lesack. Younger kids, especially, have a wide development range when it comes to speaking skills. “Try to move away from the interview, or just asking questions of your kids, to a back-and-forth conversation,” says Lesack. “Give them some examples of what conversation can look like by sharing stories or having them ask you questions.”

8. Be a good listener.

“No matter how old they are, kids want to be heard,” says Joy Acosto, a parent-child relationship specialist and psychotherapist based in Miami. Take time to hear what they have to say, even if they are pushing boundaries. “Your child may test the waters to see if he or she can be heard or express themselves in unusual ways. The first priority is to help them be able to feel safe in what they are saying — even if it seems outrageous.”

9. Make time to talk.

It can be difficult to find time during busy days to sit down one-on-one, but parents need to check in regularly with their kids to make sure everything is going okay at school, with friends, or in other areas of their lives, says Acosto. “Conversations can help build up a sense of trust — and once you have that trust, your kids are more likely to be open with you and to cooperate.”

A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, The Science of Raising Happy Kids, in 2018.

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