Portrait of Greg Baer

I hope you enjoy watching this vlog.

To get individualized parenting help, click here.

Changing the Subject

We human beings instinctively avoid pain, so when a painful subject arises, we do whatever it takes to avoid it. Your children will do that. You are the parent, and it is your responsibility and opportunity to love and teach them. You can't accomplish that if you allow your child to change the subject you have chosen to teach. 

Learn more about how we change the subject in conversations between two adults, here


00:00 People don't communicate well.

01:06 An illustration of changing the subject.

03:36 An example of how he should have responded.

05:10 Example of parent and child changing the subject.

08:51 Second example of changing the subject.

13:06 We avoid painful subjects.


Children and parents often tend to be on different planets as they communicate. Neither person is hearing the other, and that eliminates the possibility of feeling real connection. Let me illustrate the problem first with two adults.

Example of a Couple Who Change the Subject without Realizing It

I was in the room as Heather said to her husband, Adam, “I feel like we don’t do anything together.”

“But I do lots of stuff with you,” Adam said, and he began to name some activities they had shared in recent weeks.

Adam turned to me as he said, “This happens all the time. She says stuff that just isn’t true, and then I’m supposed to fix it.”

This conversation went off the rails in the first two sentences. What happened? The answer is important, because these arguments happen every day all over the world.

There are many reasons a conversation can go badly, but I illustrated one problem here by asking Adam, “What is the subject of this conversation with Heather?”

Adam began to defend himself again, so I interrupted and said, “Heather spoke first, so she determined the subject with her first sentence. What did she say?”

Adam was still defending himself in his head, so he had to think before he said, “Well, she said that we don’t do anything together.”

I repeated, “So what was the subject of the conversation?”

“That I didn’t do stuff with her.”

“No, not at all.

“Then I’m lost.”

“Yes, you are,” I said. “She was talking about how SHE felt alone. She did mention not doing things together, but that was just her attempt to explain why she felt alone. What she MEANT to say was this: ‘Adam, I’m not feeling as close to you as I’d like, and I want to feel more important and connected to you. I want to feel more loved.’”

“Really?” he asked.

“In case you missed it, Heather is vigorously nodding her head. THAT is what she meant to say, and even though she didn’t state it very clearly, THAT was the subject of the conversation.”


“And then you answered with how you’ve been doing things with her, instead of answering her need to feel more loved. You didn’t mean to, but you CHANGED THE SUBJECT—from HER not feeling loved to how YOU have been doing things with her. The subjects sound related, but they’re quite different. You were doomed in two sentences.”

“So how should I have responded?” he asked.

“That’s actually sweet of you to ask.”

I went over to Heather, held both her hands, and looked into her eyes. After explaining that I was playing the role of Adam and answering his question, I said, “Heather, I’ve been neglecting you and not telling you how much I love you, with words or with my behavior. What would you like most from me right now?”

Heather wept. Why? Because she felt like he HEARD what she was saying and proved his interest in her.

We change the subject with other people a LOT. I have listened to thousands of conversations, and often it sounds like two people are delivering separate monologues, side by side. Nobody is listening or addressing what matters.

How a Parent and Child Change the Subject—First Example

How does this happen between parent and child?

First example: Dad enters room where his 14-year-old son, Wiley, has been playing a video game for about 30 mins, from the moment he arrived home from school.

Dad asks, “What are you doing?”

Wiley makes no response, completely immersed in his game.

Dad turns off the game.

Obviously irritated, Wiley demands, “What are you doing?”

“What is the rule?” Dad asks. Notice that he doesn’t TELL Wiley what he’s doing. He ASKS, so Wiley has to say the words and take responsibility for them.

Still irritated, Wiley says, “I’m just playing for a few minutes to relax after school.”

At this point the conversation breaks down, with Dad saying it was more than a few minutes, Wiley arguing that it wasn’t, and that he missed reaching the next level when Dad turned off the game, and on and on.

What Happened to Change the Subject?

We need to identify the original subject: The family rule is that we work before we play, and Wiley had not completed his after-school chores, nor had he begun his homework.

1. Dad screwed up by not stating the subject clearly: “What is the family rule?”

2. Wiley CHANGED the subject by not responding. He DID hear Dad, but he didn’t want to address THAT subject. So he brought up a new one, all quite unintentionally. He said, with his silence, “I don’t want to talk about this.” Really.

3. Dad re-stated the subject—not clearly—by turning off the game.

4. Wiley changed the subject again, to “I was JUST relaxing, and you interrupted me, and you don’t care about me.”

What Dad Could Have Done

See how badly this can go in seconds? What could Dad have done differently? He could clearly have said, “What is the family rule,” and if Wiley didn’t answer that question exactly, Dad needed to restate the question until it WAS answered. Otherwise, the subject is never addressed, and they do the whole thing again the next day. Or sooner. Or something similar.

How a Parent and Child Change the Subject—Second Example

Lisa, age 12, comes home from school wearing an obvious frown. Mom says, without really looking at Lisa’s face closely, “So, how was school?”

“Fine,” Lisa mutters.

Mom persists. “Did you learn anything interesting?”

Lisa’s irritation is obviously escalating, and she says “No” while she stomps off to her room.

The conversation is over. Again, we have to ask what the original subject was. This is tricky, because the subject was stated without WORDS. Lisa walked into the room with a frown. She was saying, “I’m very unhappy.” THAT was the subject, and MOM changed the subject to what Lisa had learned that day at school. 

Lisa felt ignored—which was TRUE—and stomped off to her room. Lisa didn’t state the subject in words, in fact, because on so many occasions Mom HAD failed to listen to her and had changed the subject to something that interested Mom. It’s a mess.

How could this have gone better? I can tell you from many, many similar experiences I’ve had with parents and children. And I shared this with Mom when she called me.

How to NOT Change the Subject 

So, the next time Lisa came home from school with a frown—the next day—Mom stopped what she was doing, walked over to Lisa, and held out her hand, palm up. Lisa knew what that meant, as most of us do, so she put her hand in her mother’s.

Mom led Lisa over to the couch, sat with her, and said, “You look very unhappy. Would you be willing to tell me about it?”

Lisa, understandably not believing this new behavior from Mom, said, “It’s nothing.”

But Mom had decided to stay with the initial subject, so she continued to hold Lisa’s hand and look into her face. With her other hand, Mom gently lifted Lisa’s chin until their eyes met, and then Mom said, “You look pretty unhappy. I love you, and I’m here to listen, for as long as it takes.”

Lisa jumped into Mom’s lap, wrapped her arms around her, and cried. She poured out her heart, about how she didn’t fit in at school, how she didn’t feel as worthwhile as other people, and much more. It was the beginning of many such conversations.

We human beings instinctively avoid pain, so when a painful subject arises, we do whatever it takes to avoid it. Your children will do that.

You are the parent, and it is your responsibility and opportunity to love and teach them. You can’t accomplish that if you allow your child to change the subject you have chosen to teach.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}