And 5 strategies you can use to encourage your children to listen to you.
Not long ago, I wrote about why parents lose their tempers, and one of the comments I received from a reader intrigued me. The commenter wrote, “What really gets me is that my children never listen. I ask and ask and ask and I finally lose it!”
I imagine most of us can relate to her feelings. Fortunately, getting children to listen doesn’t have to be an impossible task, and it doesn’t have to involve losing your temper either. It does involve figuring out why your child isn’t listening. I could tell you what worked for me, but every child is different, so what worked for me might not help you at all. Instead, I’m going to provide several reasons children tend not to listen, and several tactics for changing these patterns. I hope these ideas will help you find a path forward that works for you and your child, opening up you’re the lines of communication so that you both feel heard. We’ll start with the most obvious first:
1. They Can’t Hear
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, “About 2 to 3 out of every 1,000 children in the United States are born with a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears.” Additionally, children with ear infections experience temporary hearing loss. According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, the average ear infection causes the same amount of hearing loss as wearing ear-plugs!
What to Do if You Think Your Child Can’t Hear You
Take them to be checked out by a doctor. Children’s hearing can be tested at any age and a simple check-up can reveal whether there is fluid in your son or daughter’s ear canal interfering with their hearing. Antibiotics and in more severe cases, ear tubes, can make a huge difference is your child’s ability to hear.
2. They’ve Tuned You Out
This might be annoying, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Tuning out excess noise is a coping skill most people develop to prevent themselves from becoming over-stimulated. As parents, we do it all the time. As a child, for whom everything still feels new and exciting, the ability to tune things out is a valuable skill. It enhances focus and can prevent overstimulation meltdowns.
Even children who suffer from ADD/ADHD and have a difficult time focusing can experience hyperfocus when they’re involved in an engaging activity they enjoy.
What to Do if Your Child Tunes You Out
Be grateful they have this ability. If your child doesn’t appear to hear you the first time you make a request, stop what you’re doing and walk over to them. Get down on their level and make eye contact. If they don’t notice you, gently touch them to bring them peacefully out of their “zone” and make eye contact. Make your request again.
3. They Can’t Process All of Your Words
My five-year-old uses time related phrases all the time. If I ask him to turn off the iPad, he’ll ask for 5 more minutes. If you heard that response, you might assume that he understands the concept, until I tell you he uses the words “hours” and even “years” interchangeably with the word “minutes.” Sometimes when I ask him to turn off the iPad, he’ll sometimes ask for 100 more YEARS. He understands the concept of time enough to use the words in context, but that doesn’t mean he fully grasps what I’m saying when I use them.
Children’s brains learn at an incredible rate, so fast that they often surprise us by what they understand, but that doesn’t mean they understand everything—even familiar words and phrases. If a child fails to follow your directions, be open to the possibility that they don’t fully understand what you want them to do.
What to Do if Your Child Doesn’t Understand
Most children will eventually gain the experience to adequately process everything going on around them. Until then, it’s helpful to get down on their level and look into their eyes. It’s easier to see where the disconnect is when you’re making eye contact. Repeat your request slowly in as few words as possible. If your child breaks eye contact or loses focus, that’s where the disconnect is happening. Find simpler words and try again. Once you’re confident you’ve gotten through, ask your child to explain what you just said to make sure. If you can’t find words that are simple enough for your child to understand, a good fail safe is to take your child’s hand and say, “Let’s do it together.”
Approximately 5% of school age children suffer from Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) where their ears and brains don’t connect they way most people’s do. According to the National Coalition of Auditory Processing Disorders, if you suspect your child suffers from (APD), you’ll want to have them evaluated by several specialists:
- Cognitive/behavioral testing by a psychologist
- Language Testing by a speech-language pathologist
- Auditory Processing Testing by an Audiologist
- Sensory systems assessment by an OT (occupational therapist)
4. They Don’t Want To
Children have opinions just like adults and they aren’t usually worried about diplomacy or political correctness. They’re willing to make their opinions known however they can, and sometimes they do that by ignoring the “problem.”
What to Do if Your Child Doesn’t Want to Listen to You
To put it simply, empathize. Even if you can’t give them what they want, like a later bedtime, demonstrating that their feelings matter to you will make a big difference in their willingness to listen. For example, if you tell your child it’s time for bed and she ignores you, you could pick her up, give her a hug and say, “I know you really want to stay up later and play with Daddy some more. How about we play this game again tomorrow after dinner?”
For some parents, especially parents who place a high value on respecting elders, this might be challenging. I’ve heard some (Dads especially) say it feels like giving up control, or giving in to the whims of a child. They’re afraid it challenges their authority and will result in every unpleasant request turning into a lengthy negotiation. If this sounds familiar, I encourage you to try it anyway. When you see how well it works, you’ll likely feel more in control, not less.
Personally, this is probably my favorite solution on the entire list because it worked like magic for me. As a young, exhausted mother, I got so wrapped up in baby mode and trying to meet everyone’s physical needs, that I didn’t realize how early my children needed their emotional feelings validated too. As soon as children start having opinions, they also start needing to feel validated. Once I started empathizing with my most difficult 2-year-old, his tantrums evaporated.
5. They Know They Can Get Away With It
If you’re really experiencing a lot of frustration getting your children to listen, there’s a good chance this is at least part of the problem. It might take a hefty dose of humility to admit it; but that’s okay. If you want to be a great parent, humility is a necessary piece of the equation. You might as well start now.Have children who don't listen? There's a good chance THIS is part of the problem. Click To Tweet
Children, even very young children, use their brain’s natural inclination to find patterns to make life with minimal language skills less stressful. That’s why routines are so important. If children know every night after dinner, they brush their teeth and go to bed, they don’t have to feel scared every time you stick a foreign object in their mouth and leave them alone in a dark room after dinner.
If you have a habit of repeating your requests endlessly, or you are inconsistent on following through with consequences, your children know it. Their brains are designed to identify those patterns. I was at the park last week and heard a mother say to her daughter at least five times, “If you don’t do what I say, then we’re going home!” Her daughter continued to ignore her, and guess what? They stayed! I felt bad for the poor frustrated mother, but it didn’t surprise me that her daughter didn’t listen. She knew she could get away with it.
What to Do if Your Child Knows They Can Get Away With Ignoring You
None of us are perfect. Perhaps we have all inadvertently found ourselves in situations like the above from time to time. I know I have. The question is have you made it a habit? You might want to explore this idea during your morning brain cleanses. Be brutally honest with yourself as you listen to yourself interact with your children.
- Are your requests reasonable? For example, if you ask your son to turn off the TV at the height of a climactic moment, you will likely get some resistance. If you’re willing to wait five minutes for the show or the scene to conclude, you will probably have better luck. If, on the other hand, the episode has just concluded but your son is begging to watch another, even though it’s late and he has school tomorrow, insisting that he turn it off now is a reasonable request. Become a scientist of your own interactions with your children. Step back and observe yourself. Are your requests reasonable? If not, what could you change?
- Are you willing to follow through on the consequences? For example, you might think threatening not to take your children on vacation next week if they don’t listen right this second is a great way to get them to do what you want, but are you actually willing to give up the airline tickets you already purchased? If not, then don’t make the threat.
After your objective observation, try to identify the areas where you can improve.
- How can you be more reasonable? As you develop this pattern, your children will be more willing to listen to you because they will trust you to care about what matters to them.
- What will you do when your children test you (because they will)? Keep in mind that young children don’t associate consequences that happen next week with an action that happened today. They need immediate cause and effect to learn. Try to choose consequences that teach, rather than punishments that hurt.* You will feel better about yourself as a parent and more likely to follow through this way.
- How many times are you willing to ask your children to do something? If you routinely ask them 2 ,3 or 10 times before you enforce consequences, they will learn that pattern. If you want your children to listen to you the first time, and follow through with reasonable and appropriate consequences* immediately when they don’t.
Choose the patterns you want your children to learn and make sure you are actually living those patterns. That is one of the fundamental keys to developing a parenting style that works for you. Once the patterns you want are firmly established, I guarantee you will notice your frustration levels have decreased measurably.
*A great book on coming up with reasonable and appropriate consequences is Parenting with Love and Logic. It’s one of my favorites.