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Heather Lindsay - Understand your child's communication style

This interview is part of How To Get Kids To Listen: Leading International Parenting Experts Reveal Their Best Secrets For Getting Kids To Cooperate, an ebook containing a collection of interviews I did with parenting experts from around the world.

I asked each expert one simple question: What is your best strategy for getting kids to listen and cooperate? and then listened as they shared their best parenting tips and advice.

How To Get Kids To Listen is available for free download here

In this interview with Heather Lindsay, a parenting coach and author of My Big Emotions, we talk about how to understand your child's preferred communication style, and how to talk to them in a way that makes it much more likely that they will hear you.

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About Heather Lindsay

Sue Meintjes: Can you tell us about yourself, and your work with caregivers and parents?

Heather Lindsay: I work primarily with parents online. I started up my business back in 2014 after I used coaching to help get myself out of a quite bad postnatal depression with my second daughter. I had a relationship end while I was pregnant with her, and it was quite a really dark time in my own life.

And feeling pretty bad about being a mom, and the counsellors and everyone who was supporting me were only taking me so far. So, I turned to the more practical side of coaching to really help lift me out of what was a dark time. And it was just an amazing change that occurred in my life. But I found it hard to access services that I needed at that time, so I was like “Okay, I'm going to create one myself.”

And so, I did my training as a life coach, and an NLP practitioner. I'm also a registered nurse. I've been working with parents ever since, to really help balance and bring them a whole range of really practical strategies that they can use to help themselves feel better as parents, help them with their kids, with behaviour, with connecting with kids, all so that family can work well together. Because that's really what I think we all want: to have a happy family and kids who want to be with us.

And there can be some little things, or there can be some big things, that we can change that can really make that difference. I work with parents in various different ways, I've had an online group program over the years, but at the moment I'm primarily working with parents one-on-one.

Understand your child's communication style

Sue Meintjes: That's a really inspiring story, and congratulations for all that you've done in the last few years. So I'm going to jump right in with the question of the day. What is your favourite technique or strategy for getting kids to listen and increase cooperation?

Heather Lindsay: My real big top tip is to make sure that we as parents are working with their children's individual communication style.

But what does that really mean?

Well, we all process information differently. At any one point in time, millions of bits of information are bombarding our brain. And if we just think about the room that we're in now, you or me, there are things that we can hear, we can smell, touch, taste, all around us.

Our senses help us make sense of the world around us.

Even when we're not focusing on them, our brain is still taking that information in. But of course, it can't process all of that information at once, so it kind of chunks it into different groups. And those chunks can sometimes be ignored by our brains, because it's like “that's not important.” It can also be distorted or it can be generalized.

And then our brain will actually code that information into different systems.

The three main communication styles

Some people prefer being visual and taking information visually, some people prefer taking in information kinaesthetically, really tuned in how it feels around them. And some people are really focusing on what they're hearing. So in the general population, we've got about 40% of us of visual communicators, 40% of us are kinaesthetic (the doers, who they really love moving), and the rest are auditory communicators.

So, when we talk about kids, most of them are actually kinaesthetic or visual communicators. That doesn't mean that they can't process information when they hear it. It just means they don't have a preference for it.

What does this have to do with getting our kids to listen to us?

What happens if you don't talk to your child using their preferred communication style

Lots of parents I've found have made the mistake of trying to talk to their kids without making sure that they are one of those bits of information that the child is processing and focusing on.

If we try and talk to our child when they’re a visual communicator, and they're watching TV or they're reading a book or looking at something on the ground, or they're a kinaesthetic communicator and they're doing something like they're playing with the toy or they're jumping on the trampoline or playing a video game, then their brain is focused on all that information that they're processing. So it will either ignore what we say, or it will distort it, or it will just generalize it into the background noise.

And this is a classic example that we've all had with our kids: we talk to them and it seems to go in one ear and out the other, or they just simply don't hear us. It's not that their brain hasn't heard us, it's just that it hasn't processed what we've said because it's in the middle of focusing on other bits of information.

How to talk to your child using their communication style

I had a perfect example of this with my son this morning. He’s six, and he was playing with his Rubik's Cube and I was just standing next to him and I asked him how he's slept.

Now there's no other noise in the background, it was a pretty dark room, and there were no other distractions. But he was so focused visually on looking at the cube, and moving his hands with the size of the cube, that his brain couldn't actually focus on what I said.

So it appeared like he had completely ignored me. Now, once I did get his attention, and I'll talk about how we do that in a minute, he said to me “Oh, I just didn't hear you.” So his brain might have heard me, but he hadn't actually processed that information.

So this is why we need to know how our child processes information, because once we as parents work that out, we can then make sure that when we talk to our child, and ask them to do something, that we're actually part of their communications style and how they're processing information.

Now, it's quite a process to kind of work out how your child is communicating, and how they process information from the world around them, and I'm in the process of putting up some great resources on my website to do that. The parents will be able to work that out.

But ultimately, for the majority of the kids, when we go back to that 80% to either the visual or kinaesthetic communicators, you really need to build a physical and visual connection with your child before you talk.

And it goes beyond simply getting down on their level and talking to them face to face. That might work for a visual communicator, but if your child processes information through movement, and they're moving their body or they're feeling the wind on their skin, or a shirt is even just itching them, then they're still not going to process that even if you're there.

So you might need to start doing something with that child. You might need to start moving your body with them, or touching them, or giving them a hug and connecting in that way, so that you're part of their feeling, their kinaesthetic communication, in that moment.

How to ensure kids listen the first time

And so, this is when we as parents need to kind of reflect on our behaviour, and the way that we talk to our children, so that we connect with them and help them process the words that we say the first time. Because this is what helps reduce that stress and frustration from parents that I hear all the time: “He just doesn't listen to me,” and I'm like “Yes, because his brain hasn't actually processed what you've said.”

So what we need to do is go back and think “Well, how are we speaking to our child to make sure that they're actually hearing what we're saying? So they're taking in what we're saying, and their brain is processing it, and then reflecting back to us that they've understood it.”

So just because we say “It's time to leave and we're going to go and pick up your toys,” it doesn't mean that they actually understand what that means. That's often influenced by developmental hearing. It’s very different to ask a two-year-old something than it is a nine-year-old or a 12-year-old.

So if we think about that example I gave earlier of my son, what should I have done? So my son, I know is a kinaesthetic communicator. He loves to move his body; he feels things very big. Feels emotions quite a lot, doesn't sit still, he's always on the go. So he really needs me to be doing something with him, before his brain is ready to process what I'm saying.

So I could have sat down with him and watched him do the Rubik's Cube before starting to speak to him, because often he'll pass it over to me and say “Hey mum, do you want to have a go?” Or I could have got him just sat on my lap and connected with him, by giving him a hug and having our bodies connect first thing in the morning, before asking him about how he's slept and eventually, what I wanted to get him for breakfast.

But ultimately, the best option was to realize that my questions in that moment were really not essential and to simply let him finish what he was doing. So let his brain finish processing the world out by what he was doing with the Rubik's Cube, and then once he stops that, then I can just go “Hey, good morning, how'd you sleep and what would you like for breakfast?”

It might have taken a bit longer, but certainly, would have gotten rid of any frustrating thoughts that could possibly pop in. All those ones that we've thought “Oh, why doesn't he just listen?” Or “why is he being rude and ignoring me?” Or “why do all my kids always ignore me?” All of that stuff that we say and think as parents.

So if I found and with my own kids, I've got three of them, they're twelve, nine and six. And with every client that I've helped with their kids listening to them, that is always easier to work with them than against them.

So my top tip for parents is to work out how your child processes information that they receive in the world, and then make sure that when we're talking to them and asking them to do something or wanting some information back, that we're part of that primary communication style for them.

Sue Meintjes: That makes a lot of sense. I often feel like my son doesn’t listen to me, and what I'm realizing is now that he often literally doesn’t hear me because he is too busy with something else. So thank you for that, it's been really insightful.

Heather Lindsay: Oh, thank you, no problem. It's just something we often don't think about.

I'm fascinated with how the brain works in general, and how our kids have underdeveloped brains.

So let's work with them rather than against them. That is what stops parents arguing with their kids, stops kids feeling like the parents are constantly attacking them, and gets us back to that family cooperation we want.

Everyone's working together, because we are working with our kids.

How to help children deal with fear

Sue Meintjes: And I just have to ask you one more. I had a look on your website, and I saw your book “My Big Emotions” book. Can you tell us a bit about how to help kids with big emotions?

Like for example, my son is very afraid of medical appointments, and he's got a flu vaccine on Tuesday. So how can we help kids with big emotions and fear especially.

Heather Lindsay: Yes. Look, it's understandable, I mean vaccinations and flu jabs and regular vaccinations or COVID boosters or whatever it is, it's scary for kids.

So if we go back to that underdeveloped brain, we as adults understand we need a vaccination because it's going to help us keep us safe, stop us getting sick, stop us ending up a hospital.

And so, we can rationalize the discomfort of going to the doctor and getting a needle, and the pain, and the uncertainty of any side effects and everything. So we go and we bear with it and we get the flu jab and we have the sore arm, and we might feel a little bit off for a couple of days, but we know we did the right thing.

But a child doesn't understand all of that. And so, there's a lot of fear that can come up. Then parents go “But this is the right thing to do, we need to do it to keep you safe.” Well, kids don't understand what that means.

It's really a process of helping our kids organize what their thoughts are, and really listening to them about what's happening. For example, “You've got your flu jab next week; do you want to talk about any of your fears or anything like this? Do you understand what this means? And do you know what it does?”

I've always been pretty open and honest with the process of vaccination with my kids, and how it helps, and how it keeps us safe. And sometimes, it can be great just to normalize it for kids as well. Mum gets really scared of needles too, or dad doesn't like going to the dentist or the doctor or whatever it might be.

And then you can suggest something special for the kids after, we can go out and have a lunch or you can have a lollipop if that's what the doctor does, or a Jelly Bean or whatever.

But it's really a process of kind of normalizing that information for them, so they don't feel that we're just trying to talk them out of how they're feeling. Because it is a scary thing, I mean, if you think about the COVID vaccinations that happened over the last couple years, there were lots of adults who were scared about it. So if adults will be scared, kids will be scared too.

So it's normal to be scared, and if we just make it okay for them as much as we can and give them lots of positive reassurance. Don’t try and talk them out of their fear. Don’t say, “Oh, it's fine, it'll be over and done within two minutes and it won't hurt,” because it does hurt. Rather say, “Yes, it will hurt, but it'll be there for a minute, and it'll be over and done with.”

That's the best way and the way I handle it with my kids.

Sue Meintjes: Okay, thank you so much for the advice. It was lovely talking to you today.

This interview is part of How To Get Kids To Listen: Leading International Parenting Experts Reveal Their Best Secrets For Getting Kids To Cooperate, an ebook containing a collection of interviews I did with parenting experts from around the world.

I asked each expert one simple question: What is your best strategy for getting kids to listen and cooperate? and then listened as they shared their best parenting tips and advice.

How To Get Kids To Listen is available for free download here