How to talk so kids will listen

And listen so kids will talk

There are heaps of parenting books. Most have got some good ideas, but there are very few that you enjoy coming back to. Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish wrote such a book – How To Talk So Kids Will Listen And Listen So Kids Will Talk. I recently reread it, and was amazed at how much of what I had read a decade ago had ‘stuck’. So I realised much of what I believe and teach about parenting came from this book – some of the ideas are so ingrained I honestly thought I had made them up myself! So here are a few tips on communication. I know they originally came from Faber and Mazlish, but I should warn you that these ideas are coloured and distorted from having spent 10 years fermenting in my brain.

Helping children deal with their feelings

A key concept of the book is based on Dr William Sear’s idea, “A child who feels right, acts right!” Behaviour is a symptom of something going on inside. All kids will occasionally throw up the odd bit of mischief, but if you are enduring persistent, unpleasant, uncooperative behaviour – that child is not feeling well. A child who feels ‘right’ doesn’t need to resort to whiney, aggressive ‘racket’ behaviour or passive-aggressive sabotage to get their needs met. So how do we help them feel right? One way is to accept their feelings, rather than trying to convince them that they are not feeling what they know very well that they are feeling. “You can’t be tired!” “It’s cold! Keep it on.” “That didn’t hurt.” “I’m not interested in your excuses.” “You don’t look sick to me.” The overall message we give is ‘don’t trust your own perceptions – trust mine’. It leads to frustration and arguments. It certainly doesn’t make a child feel loved and accepted.

A better response is empathy – feeling what they are feeling. And this is where Faber and Mazlish are brilliant – they don’t just tell you do something (“Be empathetic!”), they walk you through the process, and use little cartoon examples to show right and wrong was to tackle the issues they raise. So they unpack empathy into three steps – listen closely, acknowledge their feelings and give their feeling a name. Now, let’s unpack that.


We automatically hear the noises our children make, but to actually listen in a way that is really empathetic takes effort and skill. First, actually show that you are listening – lean in, make eye contact and have an appropriate expression. Remove distractions – your kids will never believe you are taking them seriously if you are clicking through channels or scanning a magazine (even a parenting magazine!) while they are talking to you. If they want to talk at an inconvenient time, rather than just saying, “Not now”, make an actual appointment – “I can’t stop at the moment, but I want to hear what you’ve got to say. I’ll come inside after the fire brigade have finished and you can tell me then.”

The real heart of empathy is acknowledging their feelings. Language is sometimes inadequate – sympathetic ‘oohs’ and ‘mmms’ are often far more eloquent ways to express that we feel what they’re feeling. Sometimes you might not need any words or sounds at all – closeness and empathy may be enough. Our body language should say the same thing our words do. If we stand rigid and aloof, it sends a message that we don’t really care. It’s not that complicated, really! Feel the feeling and the body will follow. Then, give the feeling a name – “That sounds frustrating.” “You must have been embarrassed.” “How confusing.”

Repeat back to them what you understand them to be saying, but don’t be a parrot. Reflect the feelings, but don’t amplify them – “You must be really, really, really mad!” The aim is to let them know that you hear them, you empathise with their feelings, but you don’t necessarily have to agree with their perceptions of how things are. For example, you can sympathise with their feeling that things are unfair at home, but you don’t need to agree that things are actually unfair. And you don’t have to agree with their negative self-labels – “So you’re really fat and ugly.”


Of course, it is not just our children who have emotions – we have them as well, and sometimes our feelings will be upset when we hear our children express their emotions. What if they say they don’t like their grandmother, or they hate their bike or they feel the teachers humiliate them? The instinctive reaction is to try to minimise or contradict or criticise their emotion. Wind back your own emotional response – all feelings can be accepted but not all actions are permitted. They can be upset or angry – that’s permitted – but they cannot hit or damage things or use behaviour that is not permitted. The book also gives techniques for getting cooperation. I particularly like the way that these methods train children to think and act without needing to be told. These may work in isolation, or you may use several of them in combination.

Describe the issue

Say what you see. It is so much better when they learn to see problems that need to be solved rather than just wait for commands to obey. “The water is getting to the top of the bath.” “I see the dog is waiting by the door.” “There are dirty plates on the table.”

Give information

These might be the rules of your family or just facts about food, hygiene, safety etc. Again, it is encouraging children to think and motivate themselves to action rather just always waiting for orders. “Apple cores go in the bin.” “Milk goes sour when it’s left out.” “Hands are for helping not hitting.” “It would be helpful to put the plates on the table.”

Say it with a word

Some of us make the mistake of thinking that nagging really works – what it really does is train a child not to act until they have been asked multiple times. Use fewer words with more effectiveness. “Pyjamas.” “Your lunch.” “The dog.” Personally, I reckon your real goal should be to have the ability to give instructions by ‘eye-brow semaphore’ – a flick of the eyes towards what needs to be done combined with an authoritative twitch of the eyebrow!

Talk about your feelings

It’s great when we learn about empathy, but our children need to be trained in it too. They especially need to know that their actions impact your feelings. “I don’t like to be shoved.” “Ants bother me.” “I get frustrated when you talk over me.” “I object to being spoken to roughly”

Write a note

For those of us who are addicted to nagging, maybe writing notes will help wean us off the habit. A Post-it note stuck to their mirror will nag all day for you. In our home, we often use texts, even room to room. Children and teens seem to be unable to ignore texts, whereas they can tune out a parents voice very easily. “Homework done?” “Shh, we’re having a snooze.” “These need to be put away.” “Chores.”

How to Talk So Kids will Listen is not a magic wand, but it is one of the few tools parents can get that comes close to it!


Family Coach Jenny Hale talks about how to listen so your kids will talk to you more – watch video here.