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How to Talk to Young Children so They’ll Listen

Getting a young child to give you his or her undivided attention while you talk to them is sometimes tricky, as any parent knows; but there are specific things that you can do to better your chances of being heard.

Even with a very young child, a parent or caregiver should take steps to establish a loving and nurturing relationship. Hugs, compliments, mock tummy tickles, enlisting your little helper in jobs around the house — these are all ways in which you can instill in the child the feeling that you love and appreciate him or her. The more time you spend together, the more “in tune” you will be with your child’s temperament, and how to go about teaching discipline, obedience and good social behavior.

A child who feels safe, loved, and who gets plenty of parental attention will be more inclined to follow your directives with little or no protest. But to better your chances that your words won’t go in one ear and out the other, here are some useful tips for getting a child’s attention:

  1. Make sure child is looking you in the eyes, so that you know he/she is listening to you.
  2. If it’s a delicate matter, get down to child’s eye level for more emphasis. If child is a toddler, pick him or her up and raise to your eye level to talk.
  3. Always do your best to keep your voice relaxed, and don’t yell! The more your child hears you yell, the more child will be stressed and will conclude that it’s okay to yell.
  4. Show empathy if child is upset (or in the middle of a tantrum). Begin with, “I understand why this makes you feel upset…” then explain, briefly, why you’re asking child to do what you are asking for. If the child sees that you care about his emotions, he will feel validated. Ultimately, validation is what we all crave in life, and babies and young children are no exception. Having his emotions validated will help form a sense of security in your child.
  5. Phrase your statement in a cause/effect manner, offering an incentive for the child to cooperate. This works especially well with younger children. Example: “Honey, if you finish picking up your toys, we can go outside and play for a while.”
  6. Young children love to feel that they’ve helped out in some way. If there are younger siblings around, you could say something like, “We will come back to this park another day; but right now, we need to get home so that baby Deirdre can take a nap in her crib; otherwise, she will be very tired and she’ll cry a lot.”
  7. Use affection to get child’s attention: grab your child and put a gentle arm around him as you speak. In the case of a toddler, scoop her up and raise her to your eye level, then talk.
  8. Be patient — repeat instructions as needed until child remembers to perform desired task without being asked. You can also ask child to repeat an instruction you’ve just given, to make sure he or she got it. Children can be forgetful, and this is something to be forgiven, as their brains are still being molded and the neural pathways that transmit messages back and forth are still in the process of being reinforced.
  9. Praise the child when he or she does something that they were asked to do, and even more so when they do it without being asked. Positive reinforcement helps children (and all of us, for that matter!) feel valued and builds self-esteem.
  10. If you’re in the middle of something and your child or children are trying to get your attention, don’t fly off the handle. Take it as the lovely and gratifying thing that it is to have these little persons be so dependent on you for all their needs, and looking up to you in every respect. If you’re very busy, you may be able to get away with giving your child a warm squeeze, a quick kiss on the cheek, then suggest something he can do while you finish with your work (some ideas: coloring, reading a children’s book, playing with other siblings).
  11. Keep daily routines simple and consistent, so that there will be less chance that children will throw tantrums or grow uncooperative because they’re tired, hungry, etc.
  12. And speaking of hunger, steady blood sugar levels are important for children, just like they are for adults. Feed a young child small, healthy snacks in between meals. (Some ideas: chopped fruit, a steamed vegetable with melted cheese, a slice of whole grain bread and cheese, bread and a hard-boiled egg,.) This will help maintain the child’s blood sugar levels constant throughout the day and thereby reduce the incidence of tantrums, which can easily erupt when blood sugar is low and child gets cranky.

By Eirian Hallinan

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