How to Talk to Kids So They’ll Actually Listen
By William Stixrud and Ned Johnson
Dealing with kids’ emotions in a productive way involves a four-step process, and the first two steps happen before you say a single word.
1. Stay calm and think of your kids’ strong emotions as a great opportunity to connect.
2. Understand and accept rather than judge; be curious rather than accusatory.
3. Reflect and validate their feelings.
4. Explore—ask follow-up questions.
Step 1: Stay Calm and Think of Your Kids’ Strong Emotions as a Great Opportunity to Connect. Consider the bonds that develop when people share stressful experiences. It’s not like we expect you to jump for joy when your kid’s having a meltdown, is grumpy, or is having a hard time in his life. But when you stay calm and reframe big feelings as an opportunity, it’s easier to exercise patience and compassion. Meet their intensity with your presence, and don’t get upset yourself.
Step 2: Understand and Accept Rather than Judge; Be Curious Rather than Accusatory. When your kid’s upset, you inevitably have subtitles running through your head telling you to use the opportunity as a teaching moment. It’s hard, but turn these subtitles off. Take the generous position that even though your child is in distress, this distress represents their best effort right now—and that’s okay. Every misstep doesn’t have to be a teaching moment. From this position of grace, you can get curious rather than accusatory and then peel back the layers to investigate what might be going on with them.
Step 3: Reflect and Validate Their Feelings. Reflective listening developed out of the work of Carl Rogers, one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century. His person-centered approach to psychotherapy emphasizes the importance of listening closely to deeply understand a client’s experience—and then reflecting back that understanding. Careful listening helps kids feel heard, and several experts have pointed out that kids listen better after they are heard.1 Also, when they feel understood—and, importantly, accepted—by their parents, it helps kids see their parents as the safe base they can come to, rather than run from, at times of stress.
Language that communicates careful listening when kids have strong emotions is similar to paraphrasing—but in a way that signals we are trying to understand their feelings. Psychologist and communication expert Eran Magen uses the helpful acronym WIG (“What I Got”—from what you said) to describe this kind of listening. Some examples of “WIG-ing”:
• “What I got from what you said is that you feel like Erin betrayed you.”
• “Am I getting this right—that the way she said it made you feel like she was trying to embarrass you?”
• “Let me see if I’m understanding. Other kids were doing it, too, and you feel like your teachers singled you out and that it’s not fair.”
• “It sounds like you were really scared when I was late to pick you up.”
• “You seem to be pretty mad about this.”
One useful tip for asking questions: rather than ask a child why he is upset about something, ask, “How does that upset you?” For many kids, this phrasing sounds less challenging or accusatory than asking why.2
Through reflective listening, we can help kids see that we’re trying to understand what they’re going through. Magen says we win relationship “points” and make a deposit in a relational bank account every time a kid says “yeah” or “exactly” in response to our WIG. 3
Language that expresses validation is similar—but adds the message that I can see why you feel like that—you’re feeling is normal.4 Validating language shows a kid that he’s not wrong to have his feelings, and that he is accepted and loved unconditionally. Some examples:
• “That must have been hard for you.”
• “I think I know how you feel.”
• “I think most people would be upset by that.”
• “I get scared sometimes, too.”
For instructions on Step 4, see our book What Do You Say? (Viking, 2021).
1. See Karyn Hall and Melissa Cook’s book The Power of Validation (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2012).
2. This comes from Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), a set of communication tools described in a book by Richard Bandler and John Grinder called Reframing: Neuro-Linguistic Programming and the Transformation of Meaning (Moab, UT: Real People Press, 1982).
3. Eran Magen, personal communication.
4. See Hall and Cook, The Power of Validation.
Adapted, with permission, from What Do You Say?: How to Talk with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance, and a Happy Home by William Stixrud, PhD, and Ned Johnson (Viking, 2021).
William Stixrud, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and a faculty member at Children’s National Medical Center and George Washington University School of Medicine. Ned Johnson is the founder of PrepMatters and the coauthor of Conquering the SAT: How Parents Can Help Teens Overcome the Pressure and Succeed.