Expert Parenting Advice
Practical parenting tips and advice from experts around the world

Nathan Wallis - Why kids will listen to you if you listen to them

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 Nathan Wallis, a neuroscience educator, we talk about why it is important to really listen to your children, and how to reflect back their emotions so that they feel validated.

Nathan also shares how to stay calm, and how to understand the different “types of brains” that govern how your child acts.

Tags: Nathan Wallis

Also in this interview:

About Nathan Wallis

Nathan Wallis is a grandfather of three, father of three, and foster father to many more. His professional background includes early childhood teacher, child therapist, social service manager, university lecturer, and neuroscience trainer.

Internationally acclaimed, Nathan is in hot demand throughout New Zealand, Australia, and China. Host of the documentary “All in the Mind”, and co-host of the TV Series “The Secret life of Girls”, Nathan appears on National Radio and TV as a guest expert on parenting, teaching, and understanding the brain development of young people.

Inspirational and charismatic, Nathan’s ability to translate neuroscience into everyday life engages all audiences.

You can find more from Nathan at his website ( here.

For Nathan’s upcoming events (both in person and virtual), visit his Facebook page here.

Why kids will listen to you if you listen to them

Nathan Wallis shares the critical listening techniques to really make kids feel understood.

Sue Meintjes: What is your favorite technique or strategy that is working well for you or your clients, for getting kids to listen, or increasing the chances of them cooperating?

Nathan Wallis: The best technique has to be having a high-quality relationship. So, it’s usually taking their frame of reference and their language and their words and putting them in a position of authority with my language and my words.

My best technique for getting kids to be more cooperative is to listen to them. I find that children listen to you if you listen to them. So, it’s active listening, paraphrasing back what they mean, and reflecting back the emotion behind what they’re saying first before I speak to the content, because children are mainly in their emotional brain.

How to reflect back your child’s emotions, and validate what they are feeling

Sue Meintjes: That sounds great. Can you give me an example of how you would reflect back a child’s emotions? For example, the other day my husband dropped off my son at school and didn’t park in our usual spot. My son got very emotional and didn’t want to cross the road. How would you use active listening and reflecting back of emotions in a situation like this?

Nathan Wallis: By validating what your son was concerned about and reflecting back that emotion, and going, “Look, I realize that you’re upset because you’re used to doing this in a certain way and I’ve thrown that out for you.”

So, validate what they’re feeling. Because that then calms them down and engages less of their emotional brain, because you validated it. And then saying, “But the reason I’m dropping you off here is for this reason, so it’d be really good if today we can just go with that.”

I would then say, “Sorry, I didn’t realize that was going to upset you. I realize it’s a different place than I normally drop you off on and that might’ve discombobulated you a bit and thrown you out. So, I’ll think about that next time and endeavor next time to drop you off in the right place. But it’d be really good if today, because dad’s in a hurry, if you could just go with that today.” That’s what I would do.

How to use neuroscience discoveries to help children cooperate

Why speaking to your child’s emotions helps to calm down those emotions and gives your child more access to their frontal cortex.

Sue Meintjes: Awesome. Since you are an expert in neuroscience and childhood development, can you tell me more about how to use neuroscience to help children cooperate?

Nathan Wallis: Yeah, well that example I just gave is using neuroscience. It’s understood that the emotional brain comes under the frontal cortex - the reasonable part of the brain. The frontal cortex is brain number four, the emotional brain’s brain number three. Brain number one is survival. And brain number two is movement.

You take until sort of mid-twenties on average before you have all four brains online. And the frontal cortex is the last to come online.

Being a child is a very emotional experience. So, by speaking to those emotions and validating them and going, “Oh look, I realize you’re really upset,” helps to calm those emotions and gives you more access to the frontal cortex.

But you could go a step further back and say, “I could use neuroscience to keep my children calm by keeping the brainstem calm.” And that’s done through predictability. I mean, number one, it’s feeling safe, and I’m assuming the child feels safe. Probably the second most important word for calming the brainstem is predictability.

So having a regular bedtime, regular mealtimes, having routines and rituals in the family which are predictable, helps to keep the brainstem nice and calm.

There’s also knowing that children use us as a social referencing point, and we often set the tone in the room, so making sure that I am calm myself, and that I’ve regulated my own breathing, and I’m speaking at a calm rate, helps for the child’s brain to do the same, to match the mind.

How to stay calm when your kids get upset

Why you need to know what your triggers are to avoid igniting your own emotional brain when your children start screaming

Sue Meintjes: I often find it difficult to stay calm - when my daughter gets upset, it triggers something in me that makes me upset, and staying calm is a struggle.

Nathan Wallis: Yeah, I think parents have to know what their triggers are. I think all good interactions involve at least one frontal cortex, and since children’s often disappear when they’re stressed, it’s doubly important that we as parents try and keep our own frontal cortex present and don’t ignite our own emotional brain.

Like I know for me as a parent, I’m quite tolerant of my children answering back. Because I was a child that answered back a lot. So that doesn’t set my triggers. But a child rolling their eyes at me really infuriates me and I know that I’m likely to be triggered into my own lower brain. So, you have to identify what those triggers are and have plans as a parent for what to do instead.

Like I knew that when my daughter rolled her eyes, I didn’t respond immediately. I stopped, allowed for a five to ten second silence while I regulated my own breathing. I breathed in on the count six, out on the count four. I just sort of promised myself beforehand that I had to do three cycles of that before I was even allowed to respond in any way.

Because if you respond immediately, then you tend to respond from the limbic system, and it’s the cortex where all your good parenting is. So just having a rule like that, knowing what your trigger is, so for me it was eyerolling, and knowing that whenever that happens, I’m not allowed to respond immediately. I have to do three cycles of 6, 4, 6, 4, 6, 4.

How the balance between the “survival brain” and the “frontal cortex” affects how your child will act

And what you can do regularly to calm your child’s brainstem, leading to more cooperation and calmer kids.

Sue Meintjes: That’s helpful, thank you. I’m also interested in what I read on your website, about how understanding how the brain works can inform our day-to-day interactions with our children, to get more peaceful cooperation.

Nathan Wallis: It’s sort of like what we’ve talked about. I think just understanding the brain chemistry and understanding the relationship between your survival brain, brain number one, and your brain number four, your frontal cortex, and understanding that they work like they’re on a set of scales. Scales can’t be both up at the same time and can’t be both down. If one’s up, the other one’s down.

If I want your frontal cortex to be up and active, then I need their brainstem to be down and nice and calm. So, neuroscience informs my parenting because I know to do things regularly to calm the brainstem. Now, we already do a lot of these things automatically as parents. It’s just understanding the neurobiology behind that.

We do have regular bedtimes where the kids go to bed at regular times, we get up at regular times, we have meals at regular times, we have family rituals like sitting down at the kitchen table to eat. We talk about the best thing that happened to you that day, or the worst thing that happened to you that day, or a good thing about your day and a bad thing about the day. Those rituals give predictability, which keeps the brainstem nice and calm, and helps to engage the frontal cortex.

Why it is hard work being a kid…and how understanding that makes you more emphatic towards them

And neuroscience helps us to understand that it’s hard work being a child.

By understanding the neurobiology of the brain, I think it makes us more tolerant of the fact that they’re emotional. They’re often non-logical. We can get frustrated with that, but if you understand how their brain is working, I just think it makes you more empathetic. And it makes you realize that they’re kind of the apprentice, and you are the qualified person.

You’ve already got a frontal cortex, whereas they have to develop theirs through modeling from you. So, getting angry and screaming at our kids, or just standing over them, might scare them and have a short-term positive reaction for the parent, as in compliance, but it’s just going to be modeling an aroused brainstem, and they’re not going to get good outcomes long-term.

Why your teenager might be less able to regulate their emotions than your nine-year-old

Sue Meintjes: That makes a lot of sense, thanks. Is there anything else you think parents should know about neuroscience and how brain development affects their children’s ability to listen and cooperate?

Nathan Wallis: To understand that there’s a period, in adolescence especially, where that frontal cortex is kind of shut for renovations a lot of the time. All the structures are there. A certain percentage of the time, which might be only 10% of the time during adolescents, but a percentage of the time they’ve got as much access to the adult brain as we have.

They can regulate their emotions just as well as us. They can plan just as well as us. But we can sort of do that 90% of the time, whereas they’re primed in lots of ways to only do it 10% of the time. So, understanding that your teenager might be less able to regulate their emotions than your nine-year-old is. Your teenager or your 15-year-old might be less able to see things from your point of view than your nine-year-old is, and to understand that that’s perfectly normal and that they just need more support during adolescents.

The best time to invest your full-time energy in your kids

Why the first thousand days are critical for the development of your child’s brain.

Nathan Wallis: Parents need to understand the power of the first thousand days, that the human brain is designed to interact with the environment in the first thousand days from conception. So, it’s all through pregnancy, conception until a thousand days after conception, your brain’s interacting with the environment to see what sort of brain you’ve going to need for the rest of your life.

If you’re going to invest a couple of years of your full-time energy into your children, don’t leave that to adolescents. Do that in the first year of life. The more relaxed, and the more in partnership a child feels in the first year of life, probably the better and the easier they’re going to be to raise.

The more a child feels alone and isolated in the first year alive, the more difficult a childhood you’re going to have.

How to talk to babies

Sue Meintjes: Awesome. What are some of the best ways we can connect with our babies in that first thousand days?

Nathan Wallis: I think the best way to do it, is often just parallel talk. I tell dads, the more language you use in the first year of life, the more often you’re in partnership, the better the outcomes are.

They’ll say, “Oh, well I don’t really know what to say to a baby.” So, I say “Use parallel talk, which is like sports commentary.”

You’re just talking to them about what they’re doing. “Oh, you’re putting your foot up. Oh, you’re trying to get your foot into your mouth. Oh, well done. You got your toe into your mouth!” Just describe what the baby is doing, because it immerses them in language and that’s the best data that their little brains can get.

Why you need to “reflect back” your child’s emotions

Sue Meintjes: That also connects with what you started with, about reflecting back what your child is saying and the emotions that they are feeling.

Nathan Wallis: Absolutely. That’s right. Because as parents we’re often so quick to want to help our children that we go straight to a solution. And if the child’s really upset because you’ve said, “No, they can’t have a biscuit before tea,” and they get really upset, we are more likely as parents to say, “Oh, we’re just waiting until after tea and you’ll be able to have a biscuit.”

But that solution would be much better heard if we first reflected back the emotion, and said, “I know it’s really hard when you don’t get what you want, but if you just wait a little bit of time, it’s only five minutes till teatime. And then we’ll eat tea and then you can have a biscuit.”

If you reflect their emotion back first, that’s going to be a much more effective thing and works within neurochemistry.

Action steps

Here are my action steps that I got from this interview. I hope you’ll find these useful as well:

  • Practice active listening next time you speak to your child, by paraphrasing back what they mean, and reflecting back the emotion behind what they’re saying
  • Next time your child is upset, first validate what they are concerned about and then reflect back their emotions
  • Review your children’s schedule and think about how you can make it more predictable for them – what daily rituals can you include?
  • Next time your child frustrates you, try to remember that their brain is not fully developed yet, and that makes them naturally more emotional and less in control
  • Find more from Nathan at his website ( here, or visit his Facebook page here.

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