Over the years, I’ve received many questions from parents of manipulative children. These children are often out of control and don’t listen when their parents try to talk about their behavior. Even after the parents tell a child that his behavior needs to improve, the child tries to manipulate his emotions and doesn’t try to change.
Many parents struggle with getting a child to listen when they discuss a behavior problem. Consider this scenario: Let’s say my child has gone out of instructional control for not accepting a consequence; now we’re talking about what went wrong so this kind of behavior won't happen again. There are typically two ways parents handle this kind of situation:
Option One: The Wrong Way
The most common response looks like this: “Bonnie have you decided to calm down? Good, because you were wasting a lot of my time and I can’t get anything else done. Now dinner will be late because of you. Why do you always do this?”
Bonnie says, “I don't know” and looks away.
Mom says, “Yes, you do. And look at me when I'm talking to you.”
Bonnie turns her head completely away from Mom, but Mom keeps talking. “You’re being so disrespectful. You aren't thinking about anyone else in the family. Do you even feel bad about this?”
Bonnie says nothing.
Mom says, “You obviously don't really care about changing” and goes on and on.
Option Two: Effective Communication
The second response is rarer, but much more effective.
“Bonnie, you look like you’re feeling calmer and are ready to talk. Is that right?”
Bonnie says, “Yes” and looks away.
Mom says, “Bonnie, because you’re calm, I’ll be able to listen to anything you say. However, you’re not looking at me right now, which tells me that you don't want to talk to me and that maybe you’re not calm. If you’re calm and want to be in control now, you need to look at me. Please turn your head toward me.”
Bonnie turns her head toward Mom but still keeps her body pointed away.
Mom says, “Thank you for looking at me, Bonnie. Now I can see you’re ready to follow instructions, which will make our conversation much shorter. A while ago you didn't accept your consequence for going out of control.” (At this point, review the steps to accepting a consequence). “Accepting that consequence would have only taken a few minutes of your time. How long has it taken to go out of control and have this talk?”
Bonnie says, “I don't know. Longer?”
“You’ve been upset about the consequence for an hour. Were you happy during this last hour?”
“Do you remember how to disagree appropriately?”
“If you had chosen to disagree appropriately with me instead of get angry, I would have listened and maybe even changed my mind on the consequence. You can always disagree appropriately,” says Mom.
Bonnie says, “Can I disagree appropriately now?”
“Yes, of course.”
Seven Tips for Talking with a Reluctant Youth
- Focus on how the actions affect the child, not on how they affect you.
- Keep your questions short and to the point — no lectures.
- Bring the conversation back to the skill that’s causing the struggle. In the case above, it would be accepting a consequence.
- Look them in the eyes. You need to connect with them to keep everyone calm and focused on the conversation.
- Describe what’s happening and what the action communicates to you. Focus on understanding the situation and what motivates the person to change and learn.
- Seek to understand. Really care about what they’re trying to tell you with their actions while still being firm and communicating deliberately.
- Give them a skill they can use to problem solve similar situations in the future. Practice the new skill.
If your child won’t stay calm or won’t look at you when you’re talking, you shouldn’t continue with the discussion. The child isn’t ready. They need to be able to follow basic instructions like looking at you and talking calmly and openly back to you.
For some children this is very difficult, but they can learn in time. Ask simple questions and give multiple options if they aren’t comfortable talking about their behaviors and emotions. Make sure they feel it’s safe to talk to you. Don't judge or laugh at them. Help them analyze and plan for the future so they don't have to go through the experience again.
If the child starts raging or has signs of an attitude problem, describe their body language and then pre-teach about what they should do to fix the situation. If they can't respect you enough to comply, tell them you can't talk with them until they’re calm. Never talk to a child when either one of you isn’t calm. It does no good.