Ask An Expert / Parenting Challenges

My 7-year-old seems to only hear what he wants to hear. How do I make myself clear?

What kids understand can depend on how old they are

Matthew M. Cruger, PhD
Matthew Cruger, PhD

Senior Director, Learning and Development Center

Child Mind Institute

My 7-year-old seems to have a problem listening. If I say we might go for pizza and a movie if your dad can come home early, somehow he comes up with we are getting pizza and a movie. Then if it doesn't work out he melts down and tells me he doesn't trust me because I lie all the time. I don't know how to make myself clear to him. It's like everything except the bit he likes just goes in one ear and out the other. I am worried that there may be other problems he is facing.

What kids hear when adults communicate with them can be complicated, and how well they understand what we say depends on how old they are. The intent of the message and the impact of the message might be quite different.

This kind of message — “We might go for pizza and a movie if your dad can come home early” — is a particularly challenging one for a 7-year-old to understand. At his age your son has probably heard an “if … then” statement many, many times, but the appeal of pizza and a movie might be so intense that it comes across as a kind of promise. And for a 7-year-old to have a meltdown when something he feels he was promised has been withdrawn is not surprising.

That’s not to say that a meltdown is the kind of response we want. But a child your son’s age is not perfectly equipped to manage that level of disappointment without showing an emotional reaction. I wouldn’t see this behavior, even if it happens with frequency, as a sign of a larger problem.

One strategy you might use is to make a more open-ended statements — “If daddy comes home by 6 we might get a surprise” — since it doesn’t commit you in his mind to a specific fact. Another strategy is to ask him to repeat what you say to him so you can develop his capacity to understand that kind of construction.

But it might be more useful to avoid something he might construe as a promise until you know you can deliver. In parent management classes you are told to use the “if … then” approach with kids: “If you do this you can get this.” But in this case your son doesn’t have the capacity to control or influence what his dad does. So he can only attain the goal if someone else has done the behavior. There’s no opportunity for him to get what he wants, which sets him up for disappointment he can’t manage. By the time he’s 10 or 11 he might be better able to hear what you are trying to communicate, and handle the letdown if it doesn’t happen.