This Is Why Your Kid’s Not Listening to You

Father comforting daughter who is sad

I’m awake earlier than usual and hiding out in bed for a few precious minutes of reading time when a wail interrupts me mid-paragraph. My three-year-old opens my door and throws himself at the bed.

I reach out for a hug. “What’s the matter?”

He ignores me and screams louder.

“Why are you so sad?”

He screams louder and swipes at me.

“Well, I don’t want to spend time with someone who is screaming at me.” I get up and walk into my bathroom.

He follows, screams echoing off the tiles.

I should know better than to ask why.

All parents should know better. We’re on the receiving end of so many whys that, like Louis C.K., we want to yell, “I don’t know any more things! Those are all the things I know!

But I should really know better, because the book my son just interrupted – Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s timeless “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk” – warned me off asking why when dealing with an upset child.

Kids’ feelings are real feelings

In the foundational chapter of their book, originally published in 1980 and more recently in a 30th Anniversary Edition, Faber and Mazlish demonstrate the many ways in which parents minimize or reject their children’s feelings: A child complains about being hot, and a parent responds by telling the kid to put on a winter jacket. A child whimpers about a paper cut, and the parent dismisses it as no big deal.

For Faber and Mazlish, these brushed-off feelings are an early breach of trust between parents and their children. The bedrock of Faber and Mazlish’s approach to parenting is acknowledging children’s feelings. Not dismissing. Not minimizing. Not jumping to explain, or blame, or problem-solve. Just acknowledging.

Faber and Mazlish offer four ways that parents can acknowledge their children’s feelings. Parents can simply look at their children and listen. They can offer short acknowledgments like “I see” or “Uh-huh.” They can identify feelings. Or they can give their children their “wishes in fantasy,” like “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could wear shorts in the winter?” or “I wish we could built a paper cut healing machine!”

Kids may not understand their feelings

Faber and Mazlish add a special caution against “why.” Although some kids can explain their feelings in the moment, many cannot. For those kids, asking why just makes things worse:

In addition to their original distress, they must now analyze the cause and come up with a reasonable explanation. Very often children don’t know why they…

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