Ever get the feeling that your children aren’t listening? Don’t worry; you’re not alone. We’ve all been there. We’ve all pleaded with blank stares to finally comprehend the simple instructions we are providing. We’ve even lashed out after yet another failed attempt by our child to engage in activities according to our specific directions.
Why do children seem determined not to hear us? How dare they appear shocked when they get in trouble once again for a repeat transgression! It’s not that complicated, is it?
Unfortunately, yes, it is complicated.
The simplest reason is that our expectations are not always so succinct. We sometimes struggle to impart our message in a way that leaves both child and parent on the same page.
When a parent says, “Don’t bounce the ball,” he really means, “Don’t allow the ball to do anything that may damage, disrupt, or disturb the vibes in the house.”
The child missed the extended message, and proceeds to practice spinning the ball on his finger. The ball falls off his finger and damages the coffee table, leaving the family in the midst of an inevitable argument.
“I told you not to bounce the ball!”
“I didn’t bounce it! I was just spinning it on my finger!”
What the child doesn’t realize is that the parent meant, “Don’t bounce, throw, spin, catch, toss, hide, deflate, smack, or kick the ball.”
What the parent doesn’t realize is that he didn’t say any of this out loud. It was all assumed knowledge and understanding.
A more complex reason that listening is difficult for children is that they often don’t feel safe in their home environment. No matter how much we love our children, if our emotions tend to get the better of us, they may be lacking the security necessary to absorb the information being presented to them.
This struggle is one that can be extrapolated from the well-documented scientific literature on “attachment theory.” Attachment theory was originally outlined by John Bowlby in 1969, and has been developed multiple times over the last 50 years. In her book Attachment Theory in Practice, Dr. Sue Johnson describes the basic tenets of attachment theory.
She describes the second core tenet as follows:
“Predictable physical and emotional connection with an attachment figure, often a parent… calms the nervous system and shapes a physical and mental sense of a safe haven, where comfort and reassurance can be reliably obtained and emotional balance can be restored or enhanced. The responsiveness of others, especially when we are young, tunes the nervous system to be less sensitive to threat, and creates expectations of a relatively safe and manageable world.”
Children need predictable connection with their parents. Emotional responses to “misbehavior” are inevitably inconsistent. The predictable responsiveness of parents is what tunes the nervous system to expect a relatively safe and manageable world. It is what calms the nervous system and allows children to walk around their world with a safe haven they can always turn to at home in times of need.
The inverse of this tenet is disconcerting. Unpredictable connection with parents may prevent the nervous system from feeling calm, disallowing children from experiencing a safe haven in their lives. Emotional reactiveness from parents teaches children to expect a world that is neither safe nor manageable.
Is it any wonder, then, that children seem to shut down when we are emotionally dysregulated? Is it any wonder that children move into a “fight or flight response” when faced with an inconsistent and emotional parenting style?
The solution to this problem is the secret weapon of parenting that we have discussed in other articles: composure. Composure does more than just maintain calm in an environment; it exudes confidence, strength, and wisdom. Composed interventions provide children with the predictability they so desperately seek, while providing parents the ability to still insist on their demands being met.
Allow me to demonstrate. Imagine a 10-year-old boy who has a habit of damaging walls in response to not getting his way from his parents. This behavior may have been caused by a long-standing cycle of negativity in the parent-child relationship. The child may feel his parents only understand how angry he is when he engages in drastic retaliation.
A typical parental response may be littered with all sorts of negativity, emotional reactivity, and dysregulation.
A composed response would look much different.
First and foremost, a composed parent would gather himself before allowing a 10-year-old to derail him and force him into a battle of wills.
Second, a composed parent will either ignore, or briefly mention, that the damage will be addressed later, and then will prioritize the child’s emotionally-overwhelmed state. This reminds the child of the “hierarchy of emotional strength” in the relationship. It sends the message: “I am here for you, but not because of the damage you did to my property. I am here for you despite the damage you caused.” This enhances the feelings of safety in the relationship and helps the child feel reassured that he is safe and supported.
Third, after addressing the child’s emotions and allowing some time for the child to regulate, a composed parent will simply inform the child of the natural consequence of his actions. The parent will make it as clear as possible (using tone of voice) that he gains no pleasure in giving the consequence; however, it must be done.
“We have to go to the store and buy the materials to patch up the wall next Sunday. You will help me fix the wall.”
If it is too much of a burden on the parent to facilitate such an activity, the parent can inform: “We’re going to repair the damage to the wall using money from your allowance/bank account,” or, “since I know it will be hard for you to pay for the repairs using your own money, you can work for $10 per hour doing chores for us around the house, and use that money to pay for the repairs.”
No matter the intervention, the next step is crucial: Without leaving any time to allow the child to feel embarrassed, uncomfortable, ashamed, or defeated, walk away. This interaction is not about revenge; it is about teaching consequences for actions. The lesson has been taught. Don’t linger to “help” your child dwell on the lesson. The lesson has been learned, and if it hasn’t by the second or third interaction like this, the lesson will surely be successfully transmitted. When we linger to make sure that they “got the message,” it spikes our children’s defenses and invites them to show us how stubborn they can be. A composed parent that shows respect for his children’s discomfort after “misbehavior” will create an environment where misbehavior is not a worthwhile option. No battle, no argument, no power struggle. Just a composed sense of control.
So no, we cannot assume children have understood the meaning behind our instructions. We cannot assure that our children understand the lessons behind the consequences we enforce. We cannot will our kids to feel safe in the parent-child relationship without being predictable. All we can do is remain composed. We must try our best to leave our emotions at the door. Leave the “I told you so” at the door. Leave the “Do you now understand…” at the door. We must realize that parenting is not so complicated. What is complicated is when we try and micromanage our children’s experience to ensure that they learn from their failures. Let us allow our children to learn from their experiences without our guidance, without our agendas. Just say what you mean, mean what you say, and remain composed. As long as we keep it that simple, our children will flourish.