When Communication Gets Stuck


My son, 4 years old, doesn't listen. At home, there are times when I have to ask him to do something (or not do something) several times. His preschool teacher says the same thing. She will call him two or three times from the play yard and will finally have to walk over and get him. This concerns me since there may be situations where I will need his immediate attention (e.g. crossing the street or an earthquake), and I'm afraid that he will not listen at a critical time. We have tried time out, yelling, whispering -- you name it, we've done it. This is also starting to rub off on his three year-old sister. What do you suggest?

Dr. Greene’s Anwer:

I feel so strongly that communication is a key issue for parents that I am addressing a second response to this question. (If you haven’t read the first answer, you will want to before you proceed.)

Now that you have had time to digest my answer to your question, and to apply the concept of bi-empathy to your relationship with your son, it’s time for some practical tips on communication.

When communication gets stuck, consider a humorous approach. Humor is fun; kids love fun. Laughing and playing are part of the wonder of childhood. When you can use a light touch, and inject humor into a situation, bi-empathy naturally happens. You bring your perspective about what needs to happen, and your child brings his (which usually includes fun!). As you combine both perspectives, a richer view of the situation, and a richer relationship, emerges for both of you.

Kids also have a strong sense of what is, or is not, fair. They view the world through ‘fairness glasses.’ Demonstrate respect for your son, his belongings, and his desires. Expect the same back from him. He will understand this. Remember, just because he is a kid, doesn’t mean his desires are less important than your adult desires. Your son may not be going to an important business meeting at a specific time, but he may have just as strong feelings about getting home in time to watch his favorite TV show. I am not suggesting that you let his desires set your agenda, but I am urging you to see and understand his point of view. When he feels understood, it will be easier for him to understand your adult perspective. Again, putting yourself into your child’s world, and helping him to see into your world, creates a more constructive dialogue.

Avoid using commands. Nobody enjoys being bossed around; kids are no exception. Children need direction, but instead of telling your child what to do, you can give structure by offering choices within certain limits. “Would you like to put on your blue sweater or your green one?” This gives him some freedom, while still communicating that he needs to get dressed now. By listing alternatives, or by giving information about situations, you enlist your son as an ally rather than making him into an obedient (or perhaps a rebellious) little soldier. Instead of saying, “Get moving! Put on your socks and shoes!” try, “It’s 7:45 and we have to leave in 5 minutes or you’ll be late for school. You still need your socks and shoes.” Instead of saying, “Be quiet, or you will get in trouble!” whisper, “Libraries are places to be quiet.” Explain the situation to your son, and what the situation demands, rather than barking commands. Save commands for issues of urgency or safety. If you use commands too frequently, your son will start to ignore them. If you use them only in important moments, they will have a high impact.

Avoid repeating yourself. If you said something, and didn’t get a response, your child may be tuning you out. It is better to try a different approach than to repeat yourself (you know how easy it is to tune him out when he repeats Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom…). Try asking him, “Billy, what did I say to you?” “You said to stop jumping on the sofa.” “Exactly, so let’s not jump on the sofa.” Get him to acknowledge he has heard you rather than droning on and on. If he says he hasn’t heard you, you will now have an opportunity to get your message across.

Take the time to explain to your child how you feel about the situation. “Mommy feels sad right now and needs a hug. Remember how you felt when you didn’t get to go to the party because you were sick? You were disappointed and sad. That’s how Mommy feels right now. Let’s sit down close together and read a book instead of running around the house.” By explaining how you feel, and comparing it to something your son can relate to, you are teaching him to have bi-empathic vision. In this way, you are preparing him to be an outstanding father.

Last medical review on: May 07, 2008
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
Get Dr. Greene's Wellness RecommendationsSignup now to get Dr. Greene's healing philosophy, insight into medical trends, parenting tips, seasonal highlights, and health news delivered to your inbox every month.
No comments yet. Start the conversation!
Add your comment