This is how you truly listen to an angry kid

My preschooler came out of her room and stomped once. I carried her back to bed. As I turned to leave, she called out:

“When we were camping, C wanted to be alone and I kept at him, and he hurt me. He hit me first. I hit him second. Next time we go camping, I’m going to hurt C.”

“Then I’m afraid we can’t go camping with C,” I said gently, hoping she would see the error in her ways (but not see I was making that up). “We go camping to have fun, not to hurt people.”

My response was typical enough of many parents, I think. Logical consequence + You’re wrong + What’s right x Lots of talking. And it doesn’t work.

“I’m going to hit C next time!” she vowed.

This is what parenting coach Sandy Blackard means by “Children must communicate until they feel heard.” I hadn’t acknowledged my daughter’s feelings. And she was going to tell them to me until I did.

I’ve been thinking and reading about discipline a lot lately. I mean, I have a 3 1/2 year old! And I haven’t come across a more beautifully simple framework for positive parenting than Blackard’s.

She calls it Language of Listening®. [Bonus at the end.] It has only three steps:

  1. Say what you see. (Say what your child is doing, saying, feeling, or thinking.)
  2. If you like it, name a strength.
  3. If you don’t like it, offer a can-do. (Say what your child can do instead, including a firm boundary if needed.)

This works in, essentially, any situation. Like my daughter vowing to beat up one of her best buds. I switched gears.

“You’re mad at C.” I said this emphatically, to better match her feelings. Now, instead of needing to defend her feelings, she felt free to talk more about what happened.

“Yeah, I went to the tree and I stomped, and I kicked him.” She stomped her mattress.

“Mm-hmm.” I was partially successful at sounding impartial. “You were mad,” I repeated. I thought about strengths — could I find something in there? I decided to ignore the kicking part, based on the concept that “you get more of what you pay attention to.” I said, “When you stomped, you knew what you needed to do to get out your anger.”

This apparently made her think of other ways to calm herself down. She said something else about hurting her friend, but then she sat up in bed and started taking deep breaths. Instead of making my escape, I joined her.

Say what you see. “Ah, deep breaths.” If you like it, name a strength. “You know how to calm yourself down,” I said, kissing her forehead.

“Next time I’ll be nice to C when he wants to be alone,” she decided.

Wow. When I left her room, she didn’t pop out of her bed several more times as usual. She settled in and went to sleep — seemingly lighter for having gotten that off her chest.


Turnarounds like these are the reason I spent a year studying with Blackard to become licensed to teach Language of Listening®.

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Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press
Written by

Tracy Cutchlow

Tracy is the author of the international bestseller Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, a public speaker, and a creator of places to speak and be heard. Sign up for her newsletter here.

14 thoughts on “This is how you truly listen to an angry kid

  1. Thank you so much for posting this! I have this conversation with my almost 3 year old on a daily basis at present. I knew the lecturing wasn’t working and now, thanks to your advice, I have an alternative!

    1. You’re so welcome, Eva. I’m grateful to have found this framework, too — had to share!

  2. wow..I dont have a little one but somehow I think this will work with my teenager as well.Thankyou for sharing.

  3. Hi Tracy,
    I had the opportunity to meet you once at the Zero to Three Conference in Seattle two winter seasons ago. I am a Home Visitor in Deschutes County, Oregon. When I first received your book from my Supervisor, I was thrilled! I still use it all of the time as a companion for parenting advice. It is both easy to relate to and fairly simple to implement. Truly, it has been such a fabulous resource, so thank you!!! Also, I print your articles and take them with me on visits regularly. I too, have a three 3 and 1/2 year old and he keeps me on my toes. He is so fun to watch problem solve and communicate his needs. We are a blended family so it can get loco and I feel I can never learn enough about how to field what comes out of their amazing little mouths. I take all of your suggestions to heart and I am positive they make our home lives more peaceful!!

    1. Hi, Angie! Yes, that was a wonderful conference. I’m thrilled to hear that you’ve been able to use my book and posts in your work. And that they’ve made your own home more peaceful. We’re going to have fun with this course — hope you can join!

  4. Give 2 or 3 examples instead of just one–a couple of examples does two things.
    1) It stimulates thinking–the reader can more easily grasp the underlying
    principal(s) involved and thereby generalize.
    2) You might hit upon a particular example that the reader(s) is coping with.

    Michael L. Masterson, Ph.D.
    Clinical Child Psychologist

    1. Agreed. I need some examples of what to say when they are not exhibiting a strength.

      1. One of the perspective shifts of Language of Listening is what happens when we look for a strength, even the smallest one, when there appears to be none. A bored child twirling her hair instead of listening to the teacher? She’s quiet rather than disturbing others; that’s considerate. (Acknowledge using Say What You See, name the strength, and now she’s open to talking about solutions.) A child who throws a doll across the room? He chose a toy that wouldn’t break; even in anger he has self-control. (And now you can talk about other ways of managing anger.) A kid who tromps in the mud wearing your shoes and doesn’t clean them up before school? He did it to take the dog out; he’s responsible with pets. (And now you can talk about shoe solutions.) A kid who shrieks when she’s mad, which calms her down? She knows what she needs to get that energy out. (And now you can talk about where it’s OK to scream … perhaps into a pillow, or outside, or after you’ve put in earplugs, etc.) Enter your own scenario here!

  5. You gave great examples, but wondering how to cope with child that hits parents for no reason. What’s the strength in here?

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