Learning how to get a kid to shut up without having to say shut up is a skill every parent needs to learn.
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If you have so many things to do and you need to focus in order to do them, the best way to get that focus is to make sure that your child is pre-occupied with something fun she can do on her own – which doesn’t take too much time to set up or put away.
One day soon, you’ll need to go to an appointment with your child in tow or make a phone call when your child is with you and you need immediate and prolonged silence.
This is totally doable if you have an older child, with whom you enjoy a strong enough relationship (so they don’t rebel and stomp about just to annoy you) and all you have to do is say that you need silence for so-and-so minutes.
And they give it to you.
But if you have a young child under 5, who’s just discovered the power of words?
How to make kids shut up when they’re too young to understand why? Or when they just enjoy talking too much? Or when they’re going through a phase when they just have to absolutely test everything you say?
Is it okay to tell a child to shut up then? Can you say shut up to a child?
Well, I don’t know about you but when someone tells me to shut up, I see red. Absolutely see red.
It’s one of those phrases that my husband knows not to use unless he really wants a hair-raising argument.
Do you feel the same?
How do you react when someone tells you to just shut up and listen?
Unless it’s said with a great deal of love and humour (and yes, that is possible) or whispered frantically by one friend to another (you know, when you’re both about to get in trouble but your friend just won’t quit it), it’s like throwing the gauntlet in front of an enemy or waving a red flag in front of a bull.
You just don’t do it.
It’s incredibly rude and offensive.
So, when an angry parent tells a young child to just shut up, what happens is that someone who occupies such a position of authority should use those words on someone so vulnerable and dependent.
But it’s so common though. So common and so tempting.
The important question is: why? Why do parents often find themselves telling a child to shut up? Or feeling so tempted to say shut up?
Why parents say shut up.
My child never stops talking and I’m exhausted!
I’ve been trying to get her to go to bed for three hours and she just won’t quit talking!
I have an important phone call and she knows it but she keeps making noise anyway!
I just need some peace and quiet!
Don’t get me wrong, I get it.
Heck, parenting is hard work – especially when you’re stressed and exhausted and you really just want some peace and quiet. Some cooperation without push back. Someone to flippin’ listen and do as you say without asking, “Why?” or saying, “No!” all the time.
In fact, when parents say “shut up”, it’s almost always because they want to exert control over the conversation after they’ve been pushed so hard, they’ve snapped.
Sometimes you just want your teens to stop the cheeky backtalk, sometimes it’s to end the whining, and sometimes you’re just tired of listening to your child (especially if your child is going through the “why” phase and asks the same exact question a billion times in rapid-fire succession).
When you lose your cool like this, when your emotions get the best of you and you start yelling or being disrespectful (yes, your children have a right to be respected just like you), take it as a sign that you need to start taking care of yourself.
Serious advice here.
When I look back at my worst parenting moments – those times when I was more Cruella than Cruella de Vil herself and couldn’t react with grace to save my life, they happened usually when I had little to no sleep, little to no time for myself (and cleaning the house, unless you really enjoy it, doesn’t count!), little to no time to just kick back and breathe.
Scary, isn’t it? But this is what happens when you don’t look after yourself.
Have you ever noticed that it’s when you’re terribly exhausted that your children start grating on your nerves?
You know that place?
You haven’t slept, nearly got fired at work, had a major argument with your spouse, chronically worried about the bills that keep bl**dy coming with no end in sight.
You’re so exhausted that you either just want some time to yourself (which you don’t get because you’re a parent) or you’re spoiling for a fight.
Every little thing your kids do makes you want to snap at them.
Jack Canfield of Chicken Soup for the Soul fame, said that real work-life balance doesn’t just mean balancing your work life with your family life. It actually really means balancing your work needs with that of your family and yourself.
So, if you’re snapping at everyone, if you can’t act with grace, if everything your child does is wrong (or too noisy, or deliberately contrived to make your life miserable), then you need to stop what you’re doing.
Take a deep breath.
Cry if you must (trust me, it helps).
And then start finding the time to look after yourself.
Find the time to sleep more.
Get help looking after your kids so you can look after yourself.
You’re tired and you need rest or, like me, you’ll morph into Cruella De Vil, who just wants to tell your child to shut up, stay in one corner and leave you in peace whilst you tear your hair out.
In fact, you start telling yourself, “Just say ‘no’ one more time and you’ll see.” You’re practically daring your child to say something.
Then they do. And you roar, “Shut up!”
How’d that feel?
Pretty cathartic, wasn’t it?
It’s like all the negative emotions pressing against you went from your heart and straight out your mouth.
At least, until the guilt kicks in and you cringe as you wonder if you’ve scarred your child for life because you know instinctively, that you really shouldn’t have done that.
If you need help looking after yourself, then you need to read the posts below and start implementing them.
How To Live A Blissful Life – The ultimate guide to transforming your life, finding your bliss, living a life of purpose and staying in your bliss for the rest of your life.
The Ultimate Guide to Self-Love – Discover what self love is, why you need it and how you can develop it.
The Ultimate Guide to Getting to Know Yourself – My most recommended way to celebrate Valentine’s Day, this guide will help you dig deep and discover who you really are. And the good thing is, you don’t need to wait for Valentine’s Day to do it. You can just make every day Valentine’s Day!
The Gift Of Self-Care – A list of amazing gifts that will help you really enjoy a self-care day.
When Moms Need A Break – Parents rarely have enough time for everything they need to do. This post contains some amazingly quick tips that will help you make the most of what little time you have. Also see: Quick And Easy Self-Care Strategies For Parents Everywhere.
Mental Health Awareness For New Mothers – Mothers are especially susceptible to mental health issues so it’s vital that you keep checking if you’re experiencing it. This post contains a list of early warning signs that you need to look out for as well as some natural ways to combat mental illness.
Is it ok to tell a child to shut up?
Short answer: no.
It’s never okay to tell a child to shut up.
Obviously, sometimes you trip up despite your best intentions. And really, if you grew up hearing or saying shut up, you might not experience the same aversion to the phrase that most people do.
And that’s okay.
Just remember that for most people, being told to shut up isn’t pleasant. Unless it’s clearly intended to be a joke, most people get offended.
As they should be.
I mean, imagine entering a classroom and hearing a teacher tell one of her students to just shut up and do it.
How would you feel?
Now, imagine that was your child the teacher was talking to, how would you take it?
Personally, I would be escalating the issue because that kind of behaviour is simply NOT acceptable.
I would expect a teacher to have such self-control that he would be able to communicate what he wants without resorting to such rudeness.
Also, consider this: saying shut up is often viewed as a red flag in intimate relationships.
Whilst it doesn’t mean a marriage is headed for divorce, the aggression behind the statement combined with the fact that it’s often said to block communication are both often treated as a warning sign that the foundation of the relationship is rocky.
So, whilst shut up isn’t necessarily a bad word, it’s not conducive to a positive relationship.
You just don’t tell someone you love to shut up in anger.
There are other kinder and, therefore, more effective ways to get another person (yes, even a child!) to be quieter.
So, yeah, we can’t say shut up.
Aside from the fact that saying “shut up” is very disrespectful and demeaning, the following are also important reasons why you’d want to remove shut up from your (and your entire family’s) vocabulary:
Model the Golden Rule.
I don’t know how you do it but in my family, we teach our child to treat others as he would like to be treated.
And we do that by modelling the behaviour we value.
We want him to mind his manners so we thank him. And when he thanks us, we say, you’re welcome. Always.
We say please when we want something from him. And like all children, he imitates that quite well and now – at the tender age of 3 – says please automatically with very little prompting.
Young children are amazing imitators. That’s how they learn best.
And, in their minds, their parents are perfect so if their parents are saying shut up, then it must be okay.
In other words, saying shut up to a child effectively teaches them that it’s okay for them to tell you and other people to shut up.
Would you like your children to tell you to shut up? Would you like them to think it’s okay if another adult – a teacher or a nursery keyworker, for example – tells them to shut up?
Probably best not to expose them to it then.
Also, imagine if you get called into school or nursery because your child told another child to shut up.
How would you feel?
I know I’d be mortified. What about you?
When you give in to the temptation to yell “shut up,” you’re showing your children that they can push your buttons. And not just that, but you’re showing them exactly which buttons to push and how to do it.
You lose your authority as a parent.
The antidote is to model restraint, self-control and the ability to step back from emotional outbursts and wait until you’re calm.
And you can show this by not quickly yelling shut up any time you need some peace and quiet.
Restraint is also one of the most important life skills your children will learn.
As they grow older, they will face all sorts of situations with a variety of people and you want them to learn, for example, that telling their boss to shut up during a board meeting is not in their best interest.
Model creativity, communication and problem-solving.
Saying shut up to a child doesn’t solve the problem you’re having. Why do you want them to shut up? And what do you want them to do instead?
If you have a young child and you ask them not to do something, guess what they do? They’ll do exactly what you just told them not to do.
In Joyful Toddlers & Preschoolers, Faith Collins wrote, “We all think with imagery, and children even more than adults.
If I say, “Don’t run in the street,” what’s the image that comes into your head? Now, how about if I say, “Please walk straight along the sidewalk.”
The word “don’t” is a modifier that is very weak compared to the strong image created by the rest of the phrase.
This is why, if you say “Don’t jump in the puddle,” the average two-year-old will go directly to the puddle and jump in it, and be slightly puzzled as to why you’re annoyed.“
Sometimes you need to be creative and explain yourself a bit so your child understands exactly what you need and how you feel.
In fact, if you’d laid the foundation, you could even tell your child that you need some calm down time.
For this, I highly recommend reading the book, Calm Down Time, with your child. It’s been a game-changer for us.
Also, you’re playing the long game, remember?
As your children grow up, you want them to know that you’ll always be there should they need support, that they can still come to you and that when they do, you will listen – without bashing or shaming them.
Joyful Toddlers & Preschoolers – The book that will help you side-step power struggles and set limits without punishing or yelling. Containing current research and written in clear language, you’ll learn:
✦ How to use connection to transform “no” into “yes.”
✦ What to do when you can’t get buy-in from children
✦ To enforce boundaries in ways that strengthen relationships
✦ Support children’s emerging self-regulation skills
✦ Get your housework done while children help or play happily
✦ Create more time for yourself
In other words, this book will show you simple ways you can create a healthy home life that meets your needs and those of your children.
Calm Down Time – An amazing book that needs to be in every child’s room. This will give young children simple tools to release strong feelings, express them and calm themselves down.
It teaches young children the ability to talk about what they feel, create their own calm down space and to understand their parents when the parents get upset.
When I lose my temper, my three-year-old now asks me if I need calm down time and offers to read me the book.
It’s a godsend!
How to get a kid to shut up without saying shut up
Model the behaviour you want to see.
If you really want them to speak quietly, modulate your voice so you speak as softly as you can.
And then say something like these before you hit the point of no return (and it seems so much better to yell at your child):
1. I need some calm down time. Let’s just cuddle just now.
2. I need some privacy. Why don’t you go play with your *favourite toy* whilst I sort this out?
3. Let’s speak as softly as we can for now whilst I’m*doing whatever needs to be done*.
4. I need you to be quiet. Shall we put *favourite show* on the telly? [If you have a no-screen policy in place, then just pull out your child’s favourite toy or book.
5. *excuse yourself from the person talking on the phone and speak kindly but firmly with your child* I’m on the phone right now. Remember, what we talked about? When someone’s on the phone, we stay quiet so they can hear.
How to make kids shut up when you really need quiet
If you’re reading the five statements above and are laughing unbelievably to yourself because, “Yeah, right. What are the chances that any young child will listen to that?!“, then I’ll be the first to acknowledge that you may have a valid point.
Obviously, if you have very young children who are barely verbal, communicating with them in the way I suggested in the previous section would hardly work.
That said, I still highly recommend saying them and talking to your children about the importance of silence or quiet time even before they can fully grasp why so that your children can get used to the idea that sometimes you need them to be quiet.
BUT, what about when you’re in the moment?
You need some peace and quiet and you need it now!
What can you do?
Set your child (and yourself) up to win.
If you need them to be quiet because you’ll be balancing your chequebook, speaking to someone on the phone or otherwise doing something extremely important, schedule that in your diary and then ensure that they are busy.
Some ideas you can use when you’re at home are:
1. Bring out the food. If your toddlers are anything like mine, you can capture their attention simply by putting their favourite food out and in front of them for easy access since he’s always hungry.
2. Set a timer. We use a kitchen timer with our preschooler and have done so since he was 1 year old.
We simply set the timer and then say, “I need you to be quiet for 10 minutes and then we’ll play your game.”.
He doesn’t fully understand the concept of time yet but when he sees the red area getting smaller, he can see how long it will take before he can have my full attention again. It helps him wait because he can see how long he needs to wait for.
A timer will also benefit you as the parent because it helps you track your time properly, which in turn, helps you create more time – an even more important commodity now that you have children.
3. Explore ordinary things. It’s not secret that kids are enamoured of ordinary things like cardboard boxes. So, Scandi Mummy recommends putting together “a big box of random things. Something for them to explore with different textures and shapes. Just make sure it’s age appropriate. The more everyday items you can (safely) put in the better.“
4. Set up sensory table. According to Two Hearts One Roof, “My dude loves a sensory table (tuff tray) set up. Usually simple stuff, dyed rice, measuring cups, funnels, scoops, some little animals or something to search for in the rice or to sort, pompoms. Anything open ended he can get his hands in on.
5. Give your child some slime. “Slime and a calpol syringe,” shares The Family Ticket, “kept my boys quiet for an hour which is nothing short of a miracle. Sucking up the slime and squeezing it back out again. Making worms, patterns and firing it at targets.“
6. Get printing. According to The Knight Tribe, you can’t go wrong with printing off colouring sheets and activities online.
“Sometimes I just type in free colouring printable sheets but I also have membership to Mrs. Mactivity which I can thoroughly recommend, we print off so much stuff from there from colouring sheets, activities and crafts.“
7. Set up a water pouring station. Crazy Tots And Me highly recommends using a tuff tray underneath or a thick towel whilst setting it up and just letting your child have a go. “Keeps little one occupied for over an hour,” she shares.
8. Mirror, mirror on the wall. For some reason, my son is addicted to checking himself out in the mirror. And clearly, he’s not alone (thank you, Diary of Dad, for sharing that your son has the same interests). So, you can put quite a few different props in front of a mirror, position your child and let him have his fun.
9. Get them sculpting. If they have Play Doh and Kinetic Sand, just set up a nice little station close to you (but not too close because there will be some noise) and let them loose. “It’s amazing what they make out of it all,” writes Twins, Tantrums & Cold Coffee.
If you’re into DIY and have a bit of time before your important to-do, then you can involve your child into making their own Moon Sand: “Plain flour and a bit of oil and food colouring makes moon sand, they can mold it and it feel really soft. My 3 year old can sit there for ages playing with it and it costs very little.“
10. Unleash your secret weapon. We all know about that one thing our children absolutely adore but which we don’t want them to have access to all the time. For some parents (like me), these are screens.
My son has an Amazon Fire For Kids tablet that we let him use in those instances when we really need to focus on what needs to be done. So, when we have an appointment and he won’t stop trying to get our attention, we excuse ourselves from the person we speak with and set up the tablet so he can play to his heart’s content.
You know what this is for your child.
Use it and don’t feel guilty.
This is still infinitely better than eventually getting fed up and telling them to shut up.
For more information, check out this godsend of a book asap.
The Five Minute Mum – Knock yourself out with these easy to set up (5 minutes) and easy to tidy games (another 5 minutes) that feature common household items. A real godsend for busy parents.
Final thoughts on how to get a kid to shut up
I will be the first to admit that the alternatives to saying shut up don’t work 100% (but then neither does saying “shut up”).
They work best when you’ve built a strong enough connection with your child so that they don’t defy you instead of cooperating with you.
“Kids are defiant for a reason. Often, they feel controlled and pushed around, and they need some positive ways to feel powerful and capable in their lives.
Because a defiant child is rejecting the parent as leader, at least at this moment, defiance also indicates that the child feels disconnected from the parent.
Maybe the relationship needs some repair work, or maybe she’s just very upset at the moment, and since she’s in “fight or flight” we look like the enemy.“
The best way to avoid giving in to the temptation and saying shut up, which you really should avoid for a variety of reasons, is to set yourself and your child up for the win.
Look after yourself.
Give yourself some much-needed TLC.
If you know that you have an important phone call to make, set up an activity that your child can do whilst you’re preoccupied.
There are so many things that you can try to make sure that you both get what you need.
In the end though, remember that if you do end up yelling shut up for whatever reason, you can repair your relationship.
No parent is perfect. We all make mistakes and apologising to your child for losing your temper is a powerful way to model reparation.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in June 2019 and has been completely revamped and updated for relevance and comprehensiveness.