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Why Your Child is Not Listening to You

What to do if your child ignores you and how to get a child to listen

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child not listening

With patience and time, you can get a child to listen better to you.

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Does it sometimes seem as if your child doesn’t hear what you’re saying, or outright ignores you? Do you often find yourself having to repeat something several times to the point of exhaustion and, inevitably, exasperation?

If selective hearing in kids is something you’ve been struggling with in your family, here are a few reasons why it may be happening -- and some tips on what you can do break the pattern.

  • You are saying too much. Staying brief and sticking to one or two points is the best policy when it comes to communicating with kids. Giving your child a list of things she needs to remember -- say, listing off several chores you want her to do or reminding her to do a number of things to get ready for school, for example -- can make it difficult for a child to keep track of everything she’s supposed to do. Similarly, using lots of big words and going into a long explanation about something, such as why you punished her for doing something wrong, can end up just diluting the message. Being brief and specific is especially the important for younger children, who tend to have short attention spans.

  • Your child is focused on something else. Often, children are concentrating so intently on something they’re doing, whether it’s watching a favorite show or movie or playing with Legos, that they simply do not hear you. (Kids, like adults, can get totally engrossed in something; so when they don't listen, it's sometimes not defiance as much as it's that they're totally immersed in something.) Try to see the positive side to this (they are building their concentration skills) and ask your child for her full attention by going to her and speaking to her face-to-face. And remember to try to give your child some time to transition from the activity she’s doing to what you are asking her to do.

  • You are speaking to him while you are doing something else. It happens -- you’re busy making dinner and you want to remind your child to finish his homework so you yell to him from across the room or across the house. But whenever possible, try to get into the habit of taking the time to go to him and speak to him face-to-face. The chances of your child listening to you is increased exponentially if you pay attention to him fully when making a request.

  • You are criticizing. Would you like it if someone was constantly criticizing you and would you want to pay attention to what that person was saying? If you are routinely negative (“I don’t know why you can’t ever listen!”) then your child just might just naturally tune you out.

  • You are either ordering or begging. Going full drill sergeant (“Pick up those toys right now!!!”) or simpering beggar (“Please, please, please, can’t you pick up your toys?”) are both highly likely to yield the same results over time -- kids not listening. The better approach is to ask in a pleasant but firm voice. Find that fine line between ordering and pleading with your child.

  • You are not following your words with action. If you repeatedly ask your child to pick up his toys and you don’t follow through with consequences when he ignores you, then you are teaching him to, well, ignore you.

How to Get a Child to Listen

So now that you know some reasons why a child might not listen, how do you get him to pay attention to what you are saying? Try some of these strategies for nurturing good listening skills.

  • See things eye to eye. Get down to your child’s level and ask him to look directly at you while you are speaking to each other. This is an excellent way to not only make sure you have your child’s full attention but also to teach your child good manners and to listen in a respectful way when someone is speaking to him.

  • Listen to your child. As with other behaviors, your child will learn how to listen by following the example you set. If you make a habit of listening to your child when he speaks, she will be more likely to do the same when you talk to her.

  • Try to find out why he’s not complying. Think about what may be causing your child to not pay attention to you. Are you asking him to do something that’s too difficult for him to manage on his own? Is he having a problem doing something you ask because he’s tired or cranky? Consider what may be causing his behavior instead of just dismissing it as your child not being respectful or purposefully being defiant or ignoring you.

  • Keep your cool. As exasperating as it may be when your child does not listen, try to stay calm and Zen as you guide your child, and refrain from shouting or speaking in an angry tone. Why? Two big reasons: One, when you get angry, you are showing your child that you are not in control and that she can push your buttons. And two, while yelling might get you results in the short-term, it will eventually lose its effectiveness over time.

  • Inject a little fun. If you find yourself in a constant battle to get your kids to listen, change the dynamic of your interactions by lightening things up a bit. For example, if you are frustrated by your child dawdling and not being able to get ready for school on time, use timers to see who can win a race to the door or set up a sticker chart to reward him with something he wants if he can get ready on time for a week or more. Use your imagination to encourage his cooperation instead of making demands.

  • Don’t expect results overnight. Building good communication habits is a process that can take a long time to develop. Instead of expecting your child to always obey you the first time you say something, look at the development of his listening skills as part of building an important foundation that will help you and your child develop a strong relationship in the years to come.

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