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

Dr. Hilary Mandzik - Why connection leads to cooperation

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 Dr. Hilary Mandzik, licensed psychologist, and parent coach, we talk about why connecting with your child on a regular basis is so important for increasing cooperation.

Dr. Hilary also shares how you can get your kids to cooperate without frustrating arguments, and how to develop your child’s ability to manage and regulate their own emotions.

Tags: Dr. Hilary Mandzik

Also in this interview:

About Dr. Hilary Mandzik

Dr. Hilary Mandzik is a licensed psychologist, and mom of three, who’s passionate about supporting parents.

She’s actively working to change the narrative around parenting, to help parents break unhelpful generational cycles so they can parent in a way that TRULY feels good – for them and for their kids. She has a private therapy practice where she specializes in perinatal mental health as well as an online parenting support business, where she creates content and offers online programs to support parents in raising resilient, confident kids with less stress (and more joy!).

She’s also the host of the parent-loved podcast Raised Resilient with Dr. Hilary. When she’s not seeing clients, writing content, or recording podcast episodes, Dr. Hilary is usually hanging out with her family, spending time outside, doing yoga, lifting weights, or getting lost in a good book.

You can download her free guide, 6 Mindset Shifts to Ditch the Overwhelm & Parent in a Way That Feels Good, here.

Her podcast, Raised Resilient with Dr. Hilary, is available here.

Why connection leads to cooperation

Dr. Hilary shares why she believes that the more connected your child feels to you, the more willing they’ll be to cooperate with you.

Sue Meintjes: Thanks for joining me today. Can you please tell us a bit about yourself and your work with parents?

Dr. Hilary Mandzik: I’m a licensed psychologist and I have been working with and supporting parents for almost two decades now. I used to work with kids in residential treatment centers and therapeutic schools, and so I worked with the parents as part of my work there.

And then I was a child therapist for many, many years, so I worked with parents as part of that process. In my work as a child therapist, I found over time that the kids who did best were kids who I was seeing the parents simultaneously.

Because really a lot of the things that parents bring kids to therapy for are the things that the parents need strategies and support for, in order to support the kids at home.

Because if you think about it, therapy’s only one hour a week. And so, the other times, these kids weren’t getting what they needed unless I was also empowering the parents to support them. So over time I realized the most powerful work I can do with kids is actually with the parents.

And so now I work almost exclusively with parents. I do parent support and parent coaching, and then I also have a private therapy practice where I specialize in perinatal mental health, so postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety, traumatic birth, and I help parents in that capacity too.

Sue Meintjes: It sounds like you have a lot of experience with our question. So, what is your favorite technique or strategy for getting kids to listen and increase cooperation?

Dr. Hilary Mandzik: That is such a great question. I think in order to understand my take on getting kids to listen, it’s important to understand that I believe that kids are going to be so much more willing to cooperate with us when they feel connected to us.

And that’s true for us as adults too. If someone asks us to do something and we’re feeling annoyed or frustrated, or like they don’t care about our needs, we’re going to be way less likely to want to go help them or to do something for them, than if they’re connected with us.

And so, what I tell parents is, “If you are asking your child to do something, have you connected with your child lately? Have you taken the time to join their world?”

How to connect to your child before asking them to do something

Why it is important to connect with what your child is doing, in the moment, before asking them to listen to you.

Dr. Hilary Mandzik: Let’s say you want your child to turn off a video game. So instead of yelling across the house, “It’s time to turn off the TV.” You’re going to want to go physically to where your child is.

And that’s important because if you’re yelling across the house, your child is absorbed in whatever they’re doing, and they’re not even going to register that you’re talking to them. So, you’re going to feel ignored and your child is not even going to be hearing you. They may hear you literally, but they’re not hearing you. It’s not registering.

Go to where your child is and then join their world for a minute. Can you sit down on the couch next to them and say, “Hey, what are you doing? Tell me about the game?” And ask some questions, get involved, and then say, “Hey, in five minutes we’re going to turn off the game.”

At that point, your child feels connected to you. Your child feels like you care, and they’re going to be way more likely to do what you’re asking.

The “Taking the Pressure Off” technique for more cooperation without frustration

Dr. Hilary shares her “Taking the Pressure Off” technique, which is a very simple strategy that works especially well to get younger kids to cooperate.

Dr. Hilary Mandzik: And then, another strategy I love is, “taking the pressure off a little bit.” Because sometimes kids feel like we are just constantly “do this, do that, because I said so.” And they need a little bit more autonomy.

This works really well with toddlers and preschoolers especially.

So, say you’re asking them, “Okay, I need you to clean up the blocks. Clean up the blocks,” and they’re not listening. What I would do, and I used to do this years ago when I was a kindergarten teacher, and it also worked beautifully with my own kids, I would say, “Okay, you know what, I’m just going to step out of the room for a minute. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Are you going to pick up the blocks? We’ll see.”

And then as soon as I wasn’t looking, they would scurry and pick up the blocks, like every single time, like a charm.

All of these strategies are based on connection.

And that’s what really makes them different than just, “do this thing.” Because we get frustrated, and we say it with even more frustration. And that leads to kids not listening and pushing back almost every time.

What your child’s “bad” behavior is telling you about them

Dr. Hilary shares how to re-frame your child’s bad behavior as data about what is going on inside their head, how to use that data to make it easier for them to cooperate with you.

Sue Meintjes: That makes a lot of sense. What if your child is already emotional, or scared? How would you “join their world” in that case?

Dr. Hilary Mandzik: When your child is pushing back and saying, “No, I can’t do this,” or they’re scared of doing it, or they’re having sort of a meltdown around you asking them to do something. To me, I look at all behavior as communication. So, if you ask your child to do something and they fall apart, that to me is data.

That tells me, “Okay, something’s going on with my kid. My child needs something right now. My child is missing the skill to deal with this appropriately.” And I don’t necessarily know which thing is going on in any given moment. So, when I see my kiddo melt down over something that shouldn’t be a big deal, I’m going to get curious.

“I wonder what’s going on for my kid right now. I wonder why this is so hard.” And sometimes that need is just to push back. Sometimes our kids need to feel safe telling us No. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to change the expectation or say, “Okay, never mind. You don’t have to do the thing.”

But sometimes they need to tell us how much they don’t like whatever we’re asking them to do. And we need to be the safe people who can say, “I get that. You really don’t want to do this. It seems so hard. It seems so overwhelming. I hear you.”

Why letting your child feel their own negative emotions is important

Dr. Hilary believes that children should be allowed to feel their feelings, even the bad ones. Here’s why:

Dr. Hilary Mandzik: And then, if your child is feeling scared or sad or otherwise just emotional, my whole mantra around this is just let the feelings be. Just let your child feel what they’re feeling. Don’t try to make them feel better. Don’t talk them out of it. We teach emotion regulation, which is essentially learning how to do the right things with our feelings, by letting our kids feel, in our safe presence.

If your child is scared, you can say, “I hear you. You’re really scared right now. It’s okay to feel scared. Tell me more about it.” All of that is still based in connection.

It’s just in any given moment, you’re getting curious about what’s going on for your child and when they’re feeling something, instead of trying to get that feeling to stop or get them back to happy, we want to let that feeling come out, and we want to make sure that we let them do that safely.

We’re not going to let them hit, we’re not going to let them destroy the room. We are going to let them feel. We’re going to let them cry. We’re going to let them let that feeling out safely.

What to do if your child does not want to listen, even after you’ve connected with them

Why it is important to have clear boundaries, even when you are connecting with your child – and what to do if your child is upset when they can’t have their way.

Sue Meintjes: That makes sense. And then, after you’ve connected, what is the next step?

Dr. Hilary Mandzik: I think if you’re really getting pushback, the other thing I would add is, again, just to get curious.

“Why is this so hard for my child right now? What else might be going on?” Most of the time if a kid is really just like “No,” digging their heels in, unwilling and unable to do the thing that you’re asking, there’s something going on emotionally for them.

And so, see if you can allow space for that. That might mean that you need to do the thing for them. Like, “Oh, I see you’re having a really hard time turning off the video game. I’m going to help you by turning it off.” You might have to set that boundary and step in and do that.

But then your kid gets to have feelings about that. Your child doesn’t have to say, “Okay, sure, mom.” Your child can say something like, “No, I don’t want to.” Your child can cry, get mad at you. All of that is okay. None of that is bad behavior. That’s all just emotions coming out. And sometimes as parents, we have to set that boundary and be the one to say, “Okay, I can see this is really hard for you, so I’m going to step in and help.”

And we do that in a collaborative connected way. We don’t do it in a punitive way. Like, “Look what you made me do now! I’m going to turn it off for you.” It’s not like that. It’s very much just, “I can see this is hard, I’m going to help you.”

The single most important thing we can do for our kids to help them develop emotional regulation

Teaching our children how to manage their emotions is one of our most important parenting tasks. Here Dr. Hilary shares what we need to do to help them learn this important skill.

Sue Meintjes: Can you talk a bit more about emotional regulation? How to teach your child about managing their emotions?

Dr. Hilary Mandzik: Emotion regulation is essentially just learning to do the right things with our feelings. So, as adults, we know that we can’t just go and hit somebody every time we feel mad, even though we might still have that impulse.

But our kids, their brains are literally not developed yet. And so, they are going to deal with their feelings in the wrong ways most of the time, unless we help them. What the research tells us is that emotion regulation develops in the context of a safe and supportive relationship.

The single most important thing we can do for our kids to help them develop emotional regulation and learn to do the right things with their feelings is to let them feel and then to keep them safe while they’re feeling.

For example, maybe your child is mad at you because you made them turn off the video game, and they try to hit you. And you are going to say, “I see that you’re so mad, I’m not going to let you hit.” You might literally grab their wrist and say, “I’m not going to let you hit, but I get that your mad and it is okay to be mad.”

So, in that moment, you are physically teaching them how to do the right things with their mad feelings. You’re going to stop that hit, but you’re allowing the feelings. And so over time when we do that, our kids get the message, “Oh, okay, cool. It’s not bad to feel angry, but it’s not OK to hit. I have to do something different with that feeling.”

And we can read books about it, and we can talk about it all we want to, but really where we get the best results is when we actually let our kids feel the feelings.

How to manage your own emotions when your kid gets emotional

Managing our own emotions is just as important as teaching our kids to manage their own emotions – and the better we get at it, the better our kids can learn from us.

Dr. Hilary Mandzik: And I think that’s where a lot of parents get tripped up, is that we don’t want our kids to feel the feelings. Like it’s super uncomfortable for the kids to feel the feelings because when we were kids, we were punished if we acted that way.

We were punished when we felt mad. And our parents didn’t know to do something different, so it’s not their fault. But for most of us, when our kids are mad, it’s super triggering. Like we feel so unsafe in that moment, and we just want to make it stop no matter what.

And I think what we have to learn is that we are safe, and it is safe for our kids to express those emotions.

The work starts with us. We have to say to ourselves, “You know what? I am feeling really triggered right now.” Like saying this to yourself in your own mind. “I feel really triggered right now. Now my kid is hitting me. My kid is angry with me. I feel triggered and that’s okay. I can feel that way. And also, I am safe, and I can be here with my kid right now. I can do this.”

It’s kind of like a “we can do hard things” mentality. You can feel triggered and still choose to do the right thing for your kid.

How to teach children that their feelings are normal

Why validating what your kid is feeling is more important than calming them down.

Sue Meintjes: Yeah. And also, just validating and helping them feel that you understand what they are feeling.

Dr. Hilary Mandzik: Absolutely. Exactly. Feelings aren’t scary for kids. Kids are used to feeling feelings. They are natural feelers of their feelings. But what they really need from us is to not feel alone with those feelings.

And so, when we can validate and say, “Yeah, I see that you’re so mad. I see that you’re mad at me, and that’s okay. You can be mad at me. I’m not going anywhere.” That is so empowering and validating for a kid.

Because now that feeling is like a safe experience and kids learn that feelings come and they go, they don’t stay forever.

And I think that’s what can feel so scary as a kid. If you’re constantly shooed away from your emotions, like “get up, brush it off, you’re fine, don’t cry.” Then you learn that feelings are scary and that’s not what we want to teach our kids.

So yeah, validating is huge because it shows kids that, A, I understand you, and B, this feeling is going to go away at some point. You will not feel this way forever. And it’s safe to let your body feel it.

Why there is no such thing as bad kids (or bad parents)

This is such an important message. Everyone is doing the best they can – kids and parents both. We just need to focus on improving and trying to do better.

Sue Meintjes: That’s great, thanks so much for that. Is there any take-away message you want parents to remember?

Dr. Hilary Mandzik: Yeah, absolutely. Here’s what I would say. I don’t believe in bad kids or bad behavior. I think that everything our kids do that looks like bad behavior is for a reason. And we have to, as parents, get curious about that reason.

“What’s going on? What does my kid need?” And for us as parents, if we yell at our kids, if we have a hard time letting our kids express their feelings, that doesn’t make us bad parents.

Our nervous system is reacting the way it was taught to react based on how we were raised. We’re not bad parents. We’re doing the best we can, but as we learn more about parenting, then we can change things if we’re not meeting our kids’ needs.

So, there’s no bad guys here. Not bad parents, not bad kids. It’s just people who are doing the best with what they have in that moment. And we can all do better over time.

I want people to move away from this idea of bad kids or bad behavior or bad parenting. All of us are just doing our best. And so, as we know better, we can do better.

And for our kids, if we can get curious. If we can remember that behavior is communication. It always tells us about what’s going on for our kid. And so instead of thinking “That’s bad behavior and I have to get it to stop,” we need to get curious. “What is going on? What does my kid need at this moment? What is this behavior telling me?” And when we can do that, we’re going to be so much more able to meet our kids’ needs.

Sue Meintjes: That’s really true. I think you can do the same for your own feelings. Just try to reflect on why you acted in a certain way when you felt a certain feeling.

Dr. Hilary Mandzik: Absolutely. And I think that’s one of the things that people don’t realize. A lot of parenting is actually re-parenting ourselves. Like the needs that didn’t get met for us when we were kids, we have to meet those needs for ourselves now as adults. We have to feel our own feelings, and that helps us be there for our kids.

It’s really hard to be there for our kids if we don’t try to support ourselves too and feel our feelings.

Action steps

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

  • Before asking your child to do something, next time think about how you can first connect with them in their world

  • Use the “Taking the Pressure Off” technique next time you want your young child to do something

  • Try to re-frame your child’s tantrum as a mystery, and become curious about the real reason why they are acting that way

  • Next time your child feels negative emotions, don’t try to calm them or make them feel better, but rather just explain to them how they are feeling, and that it is normal to have bad feelings sometimes

  • Next time you are angry or upset, reassure yourself that feeling this way is ok, that you are allowed to feel bad or negative emotions

  • Download Dr Hilary’s free guide, 6 Mindset Shifts to Ditch the Overwhelm & Parent in a Way That Feels Good, 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