Thursday 23 November 2017

Our 10-year-old son just won't listen and we get so cross!

Illustration: Maisie McNeice
Illustration: Maisie McNeice

David Coleman advises how to get a ten-year-old to listen and how to control young children.

Question: Our 10-year-old son just doesn't listen and it's causing great stress and upset in our home, especially in the mornings. I need to tell him several times to get washed, put on his shoes, brush his teeth, eat his breakfast. It's very frustrating! Today, he opened the front door to a complete stranger despite our repeated insistence to NEVER open the front door to anyone unless we are also present.

How can we get him to listen to us? All of the fighting and shouting is getting us nowhere and it's damaging our relationship with him.

David replies: You are quite correct to recognise that fighting with your son and shouting at him will damage your relationship with him.

One of the things that we know is that when we are communicating with someone else, in a row, that we and they take only 7pc of the meaning of the argument from the words that get spoken.

We interpret the other 93pc of the meaning from the other person's body language and tone of voice, loudness and so on. So, if we are fighting with our child, and shouting at them about what they did wrong, they are not really paying attention to what we are saying.

They are more likely to be focused on how angry we seem.

That means that whatever important lesson we are trying to teach them is lost. They won't be able to attend to what we say as their attention is drawing to our raised voice, angry look and sharp tone.

Indeed, thinking about the situations that you describe with your son, I could imagine that part of his problem, generally, is that he isn't paying enough attention to you. This can easily happen in families where we parents are busy trying to organise the household and get everyone sorted. We tend to maintain a stand, for example, in the kitchen, cleaning, tidying and preparing, while also trying to direct our children (and maybe even our partners) to do their share.

If our children are in other rooms, we shout out the orders about what to do next, how to do it and when to do it. It is easy for our children to ignore us. They are busy and distracted with books, toys, screens and so on.

If we don't get a response we typically shout louder. If we continue to be ignored, we get really cross, to the point that we march from the kitchen and demand, angrily and face-to-face, that they do what they are asked.

At this point, the child usually has no option but to do what they are told. We may feel vindicated that they do their chore, or organise themselves, but at the cost of our raised frustration and possibly blood pressure.

So, the key to getting children to do what we want them to do, without the stress of shouting and multiple requests, is to go to them the first time and make sure we have their attention before asking them to do something.

So, if you need your son to get dressed, be in his room, make eye contact and ask him to get dressed within a time limit. Ask him to repeat what you just said, then leave him to the task. Giving him time to achieve it.

Depending on the age of the child, you may also need to give them a hand, or physically help them to get started on the task. Keep instructions short as children can often forget all but the last thing you say.

If he still gets distracted and doesn't get dressed, you give him a second chance, again making sure you have his attention, ask him calmly to get dressed. Insist, firmly, but kindly, that he now doesn't have a choice and must get dressed while you wait. Then wait for him to get dressed.

This may require a bit more of your time, but it will massively reduce your stress levels, as the task will be achieved, freeing you up to get your other jobs done.

You also will avoid getting cross, and so you will remain calm and will probably stay in better form, meaning that you will retain more patience and tolerance for other situations that might arise.

There are lots of children that require many repeated attempts to tell them what is okay and not okay. The calmer we can stay in telling them, the more likely they are to hear it and abide by it.

My boys push all of my buttons, and they wind me up terribly. How can I stay calm with them?

Question: I have two boys aged nine and 11. My mum, who was their main carer, has become seriously ill recently. I work part-time. I love my boys dearly, but they are pressing buttons for stuff they want and they know that I am vulnerable at the moment. Sometimes I give in, as this is the easy option. If I say "no", I am the worst mum ever. They also quarrel from time to time and, as boys do, get physical. I try to separate them, or change the subject, which occasionally works. I'm struggling to deal with them and would appreciate your advice.

David replies: It seems to me that there are two very separate issues going on. The first issue is the impact of your mum's illness on you, and on the two boys. The second issue is the, probably, normal sibling rivalry that occurs between the two of them.

I can only imagine that your mum's illness has added a huge amount of stress to your life. Not only do you have to arrange alternative care for your sons, but you are probably also very worried about her.

Don't underestimate how significant this kind of stress can be. It would be easy, and quite natural, for you to feel anxious, frustrated and short-tempered under these circumstances.

If you are anxious and frustrated, then you might be very snappy and cross with the boys, in situations that you would have otherwise taken in your stride.

It is worth talking to friends or family about this. That old adage of "a problem shared is a problem halved" runs very true. Simply by talking with others about the pressures you face may help to lift the burden.

You may also find that, in addition to listening, your friends and extended family may also be able to offer practical support to you to lighten your load.

The other factor to consider is the emotional impact of your mum's illness on the two boys. If she has been their main carer then they are probably very close to her. They too may be very upset that she is unwell.

Children, even at their age, may find it hard to express the complexity of their feelings about significant experiences, like their granny getting sick. When they can't describe it in words, they may show it in their behaviour.

We can often see an increase in misbehaviour, aggression and conflict. It really helps to be able to think of this kind of behaviour as a form of communication, rather than seeing it as misbehaviour to be punished or disciplined.

I think it will really help your boys if you can create opportunities to talk about their granny and the upsetting nature of her illness. You can also talk with them about how they may be missing their granny, with whom they were used to spending a lot of time.

If you can empathise with them about how scary or sad it might feel, that she is ill, you may find that they will push less buttons to wind you up. Indeed, you may find that you and they share many common feelings about your mum's illness.

The more you can talk about this with them the closer you will all feel and the less likely they will be to act out the potentially negative feelings in misbehaviour.

The other issue of sibling rivalry may not have an easy solution! Often it is a direct jealousy where one child feels that the other gets 'more'. The 'more' can be things like bigger portions, more time, more access to TV or screens…anything, in fact.

While children may, in truth, blame their parents for these perceived injustices, they may take out their frustration on their brother or sister.

With your boys, it is good to continue to distract them from their bickering, on occasion. It is also okay to ignore it a lot of the time, letting them resolve the disputes, only intervening to make sure one or the other doesn't get hurt or too upset.

I do think, though, that if you can mind yourself, in the first instance, and get the support and understanding from friends and family about the stress you are under with your mother's illness, that you will find it easier to manage the boys and their struggles.

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