Why Won’t My Child Listen? 5 Reasons and Solutions

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I’ve told my oldest son not to sit on the table or counter top since he was 2 years old and yet he still perches his behind on the edge of the counter from time to time. When I interrupt my three sons while they are Lego creating and tell them to get their PJ’s on and get ready for bed, I am often left with little to no response from them. There are moments when I hear the ever increasing whine of siblings as they tease each other and my command to stop teasing goes completely ignored. My guess is that most parents have experienced similar situations as well.

The phrase, “They just don’t listen” is an all too familiar sentence for most parents. It expresses an important human desire/need to be heard. The funny thing is that as kids grow up you can also hear them state the same question regarding their parents, “Why don’t they listen?” This query is not really a fair question for parents or children to ask, because when we ask, “Why don’t they listen?” We are not simply concerned about if they listen and hear our words. Instead we are more concerned with their response to our requests. We are really asking, “Why don’t they stop what they are doing, attend perfectly to what I am saying and then do it quickly and consistently?” Well, the simple answer is, “because they’re a kid.” But, with that said, it’s a fair question and it’s worth answering.

When we reflect on the honest answers to why kids don’t “listen,” the question starts to change and take on a more helpful and productive perspective. We shift from the accusatory question, “Why don’t they listen?” to “How can I engage and enlist the cooperation of my children?” As parents we can encourage healthy cycles of listening and cooperation that will last into their teenage years by empathizing with our children’s poor listening and delayed compliance. Understanding and empathizing with their point of view can lead us to better solutions that encourage their active listening, mutual respect and cooperation. We can start by asking the question, “What reasons keep my child from listening and cooperating?” Our follow up question then becomes, “How can I engage and enlist the cooperation of my children?”

The following points attempt to objectively address just 5 reasons that sometimes keep our kids from “listening” and effective ways to approach those reasons. These solutions help us to work with our children towards listening instead of against them.

5 reasons your kids may not be listening

1. They can’t hear your words over your emotions: When we let irritation or anger get the best of us and drive us to yell or use words or tone that is aggressive, we shut down the parts of our child’s brain that helps them to listen, learn and cooperate.

Solution: Learn and practice calming yourself and managing your emotions and responses: Identify personal coping and calming skills that help you to manage your emotions and responses. Designate a time every day to ponder and practice these skills so that you can use them when you need them most. Daily relaxation and meditation can be helpful. It can also help to plan ahead of time simple words or phrases you can use when you are upset.

2. They know you’ll remind them when it’s actually important: Most people call this “nagging.” Even though no one likes to be nagged, when we are told multiple times to do something, we start to learn that the first request is not important. Unconsciously we make those requests low on the priority list because we know that we can ignore it without any real consequence until it is actually “important.”

Solution: Only tell them once. Set appropriate limits or boundaries and express to them the natural consequences ahead of time, the first time. Don’t nag but write it down or draw it and put it in a place where they can see it. Say something like, “you are free to go outside as soon as the toys in your room are cleaned up.”

3. They are preoccupied and busy with something else: I know one of the most difficult times to get my kids to listen is when they are building Lego creations as I shared at the beginning of the article. The thing that helps me empathize with my kids on this one is that I experience the same thing regularly. When I write, I can become pretty absorbed in the process. If someone asks me to do something else while I am in the middle of a thought, chances are it will not happen right away. There’s even a good chance that I may not verbally or non-verbally respond to them. This is not because I don’t care about what they are saying or even that I don’t intend on fulfilling the request, but I have already set my intention and priorities on my present task. Simply shifting gears before having some completion or closure is difficult. I know that my sons feel the same way about their Legos. When my boys are engrossed in play and don’t hear my request, it’s not because they are ignoring me. It’s because they are engaged in something else.

Solution: Move toward, touch, make eye contact, speak kindly and calmly, and respect their current engagement: When we are immersed in something, shifting attention can require respect, patience and more than just words. We often bark out orders while our kids are engaged in something else. In order to increase listening and make sure we are heard, move toward them, give them a gentle touch on the arm or shoulder to get attention and make eye contact. When you have their attention, if your request is not urgent, respect their priority for their current activity or task. You could say something like, “Finish up what you are doing in the next 5 minutes and then please take the garbage out” Another option could be to give them a choice like, “Would you like to take the garbage out now or in 5 minutes after you are done coloring the picture you are coloring?”

4. They need more control: People don’t like to be controlled. Kids will go to great lengths to assert their independent personal ability to control themselves. People in general will do some absurd things at times in the name of non-conformity simply to say, “You can’t tell me what to do!”

Solution: Increase your influence through kindness and giving them as much control as they can handle: Give them choices and problem solve WITH them. With young kids, it can be helpful to give them small choices and limit the choices to 2 options. You could ask them if they want to pick out their PJ’s or if they want you to pick out the PJ’s at bedtime rather than simply saying, “Go get ready for bed!” Find ways to join with your child in solving problems. Work together to find solutions. Let them offer suggestions and create plans to resolve conflicts.

5. They are overwhelmed: Sometimes we use too many words and give too many directions back to back. If someone attempted to give you directions to a place you have never been in a totally unfamiliar foreign language, you might simply tune them out and seek your own solution. Similarly, kids need us to speak their language and speak to them in digestible pieces.

Solution: Give them smaller, bite size pieces: When giving instructions or a list of things to do, break it down into smaller, bite size pieces. Don’t overload them. Even the adult brain is only able to process and remember about 3-7 things at a time. I often laugh when I set off to the grocery store and my wife turns to me and says, “make sure you get milk and eggs and cereal and lunchmeat and lettuce and, and, and…” It’s by about the 3rd item that I turn to her and say, “Let’s make a list.” Lists can be useful to help our kids break down larger tasks into smaller parts.

There really are some pretty good reasons our kids might not be listening. They are the same reasons that we sometimes don’t listen, hear or do what others ask of us. When we understand the reasons, we can bridge the gap and increase respectful listening and cooperation between us and our children. What are some of the reasons that your child doesn’t listen? Are their reasons on this list or do they have other reasons? How can you find solutions that help to meet the needs of those reasons and create a win/win situation for you and your child?

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