You know that book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus? Where is the parenting version of that? Because lately, I'm pretty sure my children and I are not only living on two different planets, but we are speaking two different alien languages.
Somehow, me asking my child not to jump on the couch or slap her brother or throw a block at my head translates into more jumping, slapping, and throwing.
Even my best attempts to get my child to listen turn into a battle, leaving both of us feeling out of control, frustrated, and ultimately further apart (forget different planets, more like different galaxies).
It turns out that miscommunications between parents and children are not uncommon, and when we look at the science behind our children’s developing nervous system, it all makes sense. This brain science explains not only why our kids can't hear us but what we can do about it.
For children to process and integrate what we are saying, we must speak in a language they can understand. Here’s what we know:
1. Children are wired to experience life and the world around them from their brainstem (reactive/defensive part of the brain) and limbic system (emotional part of the brain).
They do not yet have access to thinking, moving, and making decisions using their higher brain regions (aka the responsive/logical part of the brain responsible for most of the "executive functioning skills" we all wish our two and three-year-olds had already).
This means that anytime our children feel overwhelmed by their emotions, sensory overwhelm, or bump into an "unmet need", such as feeling hungry, tired, lonely, overpowered, or off-routine, they will resort to their more illogical and defensive "fight, flight, and freeze" mechanisms, wired to keep them safe and well-attached to us.
Just as with any other skill, the best way to build the higher brain regions is to practice them through games and time-ins where children have the chance to learn from not only their many feelings, but their thoughts, actions, and even their mistakes.
2. A child’s brain is designed to process concrete information.
Using words that describe what we want our children to do (as opposed to what we don't) help children hear what we are saying and respond instead of reacting.
Plus, using concrete, tangible tools that kids can touch, hold, play with, and see helps children learn from their feelings and the many little teaching moments that happen in everyday life.
3. Children do much better when things are predictable and concrete.
This means when we have boundaries in place that are consistent and revealed ahead of time it incentivizes the behaviors we desire.
What Parents Say And What Kids Hear
Sometimes there is a disconnect between what we say to what our children hear. Let’s take a look at a few common examples:
When we say ...
1. Be quiet.
- Kids hear/internalize: I am too much right now.
- What to do instead: "Be quiet” is abstract and hard for children to process. Encourage your child to choose to be respectful with their voice rather than punishing them for doing what feels natural. Hand gesture a volume dial, model being quiet by playfully whispering, have them mirror your tone (loud then quiet), play the quiet game, and offer redirection.
2. Be careful.
- Kids hear/internalize: The world is scary.
- What to do instead: Say what you want your child to do. “Get down… walk on the sidewalk” or ask questions like, “What do we need to do before we cross the street?” Let your children grow in their awareness of themselves and the world.
3. Hurry up.
- Kids hear/internalize: I need to give up my desires for yours.
- What to do instead: Be clear, respectful, and firm. “We are leaving in ten minutes.” You may help your child by offering a visual schedule, announcing the transition, and/or using a timer.
4. Let me do that for you.
- Kids hear/internalize: I am not capable and my parents can do it better.
- What to do instead: Never do for a child what they think they can do for themselves. Give your child time to learn. Offer encouragement, “I believe in you. You can do hard things.” And if you must hurry, offer something like, “How about I put on this shoe and you put on that one.”
5. Be a good boy/girl.
- Kids hear/internalize: I am good when I do good, and I am bad when I do bad.
- What to do instead: Communicate to your child that who they are and what they do are two separate things. They are always a good kid, and sometimes they have a hard time. To communicate this, connect before you redirect: Meet the unmet need, validate the feeling, set boundaries, and teach new skills through co-regulation.
6. Be a big boy/girl.
- Kids hear/internalize: Bigger is better, so I can’t wait to be older. This incentivizes our kids to be more than they are.
- What to do instead: Celebrate your child for the age they are, and the abilities they have. “Wow, you’re four. What a great age to be.” or “I see you working hard on that. Way to stick with it!”
7. Don’t jump, hit, scream … or any other verb.
- Kids hear/internalize: Jump, hit, scream.
- What to do instead: State the behaviors you do desire. “Feet on the floor … You can hit the drum … Match my voice.”
8. Don’t whine.
- Kids hear/internalize: I am not allowed to express myself. My wanting and needing are bad or wrong.
- What to do instead: Help your child find her powerful voice via play. “Where is Ella’s powerful voice? It was here just a minute ago?!” Or gesture her powerful voice by tapping your throat. Or simply say, “I want to help. I can’t understand what you are saying. Please use your powerful voice.”
9. Stop crying.
- Kids hear/internalize: It is unsafe to show emotion.
- What to do instead: Help your child name it to tame it and feel it to heal it. “I see you are so sad, and I am here for you.”
10. Stop being shy. Give him a hug.
- Kids hear/internalize: What I feel inside isn’t what is good or right or acceptable.
- What to do instead: Invite your child to tune in to their intuition and trust what they find. Offer support. “I see you don’t want to give hugs right now. That’s okay. Listen to your body.”
11. We don’t do that in this house.
- Kids hear/internalize: I did that (behavior), so I must not belong.
- What to do instead: State an observation and then set clear, firm, and consistent boundaries. “I see a boy who threw his dinner bowl. All done.”
12. You’re fine. You’re being too emotional.
- Kids hear/internalize: My feelings are wrong, not allowed, not safe.
- What to do instead: Pause to notice and manage your triggers and stay curious about your child’s experience. Validate emotions, hold space, and make it safe to feel.
13. You make me so mad.
- Kids hear/internalize: I am responsible for others’ feelings.
- What to do instead: State how you feel using an I statement. “I feel frustrated when I see the cat get hit because he could get hurt."
If you find that you use any of these, meet yourself with compassion. We are wired to say most of these phrases because it’s what was modeled to us, and our parents, and generations past. Being a cycle breaker takes awareness, and that is exactly what this article invites. Compassionate awareness.
When we shift our lens to see that parenting isn’t something we do to our children but rather something we have with our children - aka a relationship - we move from a different place. One that shifts away from blind obedience and emotional suppression to one that invites win-win scenarios and emotional expression.
There’s who your child is, and who you are. And likely they are the same in some ways and different in others. When we learn to speak to their developing brain, children better hear our intended messages. As children feel safe, powerful, and connected, they are more apt to play on the same team. And when we are working together, everyone wins. All of the sudden, we stop being worlds apart.