This post contains affiliate links for your convenience.
I bet your child doesn’t always listen. And I bet your parents would say that you were exactly the same when you were a child yourself. Getting kids to listen is one of the issues many parents continue to struggle with. If you have kids, you know what I’m talking about:
- You have to repeat any instructions multiple times before your child takes any action
- You sometimes feel like yelling or threats are the only things that get your kid to listen
- You ask you child to do something and one hour later, they still haven’t done what they were expected to do
Kids are masters of selective hearing. They will always hear when you tell them that they can have more time playing their videogame or that they can have an ice-cream treat, but they won’t hear when you call them to set the table or ask them to do their homework.
It can be difficult to deal with a child who won’t listen, but the good news is that there are a few simple strategies that can help you get your child to listen without having to yell or nag.
This article will focus on:
- Understanding the behavior of children who won’t listen
- What to do to get them to listen
- How to correct behavior in a child that won’t listen
Five reasons why your child doesn’t listen
There are several reasons that may explain why your child does not listen.
1) Difficulty processing instructions
As a parent, there always seem to be so many things to do at the end of the day. There’s homework, laundry, dinner, tomorrow’s lunch, and perhaps extracurricular activities to think about.
Knowing that there is a lot to be accomplished in quite a short amount of time sometimes leads to giving multiple instructions to kids.
But here’s the thing: few children are able to cope with multiple instructions at the same time, meaning that most of those instructions get lost along the way.
A common reason behind children appearing not to listen is their inability to process the instructions they receive.
2) Distracted children do not listen
I personally cannot concentrate on two things at once. That doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally try to, but the results are always disastrous. Few adults are able to really concentrate in the face of multiple stimuli (even when they claim to be skilled multitaskers!).
Children are far worse. Asking them to do something when they are already in the middle of something else rarely works, especially if instructions are being shouted from a different room.
What they’ll do is pay attention to what is of most interest to them at that particular time, so unless you’re offering them their favorite treat, chances are you are not the one who will get their attention.
In other words, you already know that chances are slim that your child will listen to you when they are in the middle of their favorite show or their favorite game. That’s just the way it is, and it’s true for everyone.
3) Unclear consequences
What are the consequences of your child not listening to you? If there are no clear consequences for the things that really matter, then there are high chances that they simply won’t listen, and that you’ll have to keep repeating yourself if you want them to eventually pay attention.
4) Power struggles may be the reason your child won’t listen
As your child gets older, it is not uncommon for them to attempt to gain power through a “battle of the wills”. Power struggles are a child’s way of testing limits to see how far they can go and how much they can get away with.
But power struggles are also the sign that your child needs greater autonomy and more opportunities to feel like they are in control.
5) The same methods lead to the same results
Albert Einstein is quoted as saying that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. If you keep reacting to your child’s behavior in the same way, chances are that you will keep seeing the same results.
If you feel that you aways have to nag or yell before your children can listen to you, it may be time to completely change how you communicate.
So, getting your child to listen is a nightmare? Here are eight strategies you can try to grab their attention.
Eight practical tips to get your child to listen to you the first time
- Replace orders with requests
Nobody likes feeling like they are being ordered about. Remember that the strongest parent-child relationships are built on mutual respect. Address your child using the same terms you would use when asking something from a friend or a colleague.
2) Communicate purposefully if you want your child to listen
Very few children can follow through on multiple instructions. Think about what you need your child to do then break down the instructions into manageable parts.
For example, if you need several things done, telling your child to go hang his coat up then come see you as soon as he’s finished will increase the chances of success.
3) Ask your child to repeat what they are expected to do
If your child has a hard time listening and following instructions, chances are that they haven’t really heard you. Instead of repeating the same instructions over and over again, ask your child to repeat what you said as soon as you ask them to do something.
4) Move closer
If you want your child to listen to you, change how you communicate. Make sure that you make a connection before you say what it is that you want to say.
5) Stop yelling and nagging
If your child doesn’t listen to you, you’ve probably noticed that yelling doesn’t work. Or that you have to keep yelling to get any results.
The truth about yelling is that it never works. It may scare your child and force them into submission, but it does not address any underlying issues. This article has all the tips you need to learn to yell less and to adopt more effective communication patterns with your child.
6) Make your child responsible for getting things done
If you are like most parents, you probably find yourself repeating the same things over and over again: brush your teeth, set the table, hang your coat up, put on your shoes, do your homework and so on.
But what if you got your child to do whatever it is that they expected to do without having to intervene?
An easy way to do so is to establish a morning, after school or evening routine. Let them help you come up with a list of what they are expected to do every day. Once a given task is accomplished, they can tick it off the list.
7) Make time
If you’re almost always late getting the kids to school in the morning, you will inevitably end up shouting instructions, getting upset that certain things haven’t been done, panicking when you look at the clock, and so on.
You know that scheduling just five extra minutes in the morning will change everything – but that’s something YOU have to do, not your kids.
If you are always running late, start earlier.
8) Give your child the power they crave to end power-struggles
Not listening can be your child’s way of showing you that they crave greater freedom and autonomy.
As they grow older, it is important for them to make their voice heard. This means, for example, that they want to feel like they play an active role in making decisions that concern them.
Giving your child choices (for example, asking them to list the things that need to be done then letting them choose how to do them or having them select the chores that they would like to do) or asking for their opinion is an easy way to empower them and to reduce power struggles.
Like many parents, we struggled with our son doing his homework when he was younger. There was always something better or more interesting to do, or he always “needed five more minutes”. It was driving us crazy.
The moment we decided to make him responsible for doing his homework changed our lives. Seriously.
This is what we did: We told him that he was free to do his homework whenever he wanted, but it had to be done by 6 p.m. (Okay, if I’m to be totally honest, I think that allowing him to play one videogame but only after his homework was done and banning videogames after 6 p.m. also really helped😊).
Providing some form of liberty within a framework is an easy way to get your child to do what they have to do by themselves.
This could look like
- Asking them to choose when they’ll take their shower: before or after their snack
- Telling them that they are free to accomplish a specific task whenever they like, but that they can watch TV only after that task is done
- Telling them that they go to their friend’s house once their room is tidy
There is no right or wrong approach – you know your child best so choose whatever you think will be most effective.
Positive reinforcement as an effective strategy to make your child listen
Sometimes, getting your child to listen can be a real struggle. This could concern issues such as getting them to:
- Do their homework,
- Brush their teeth before going to sleep
- Go to and stay in bed when it’s bedtime
- Get ready for school on time
- Stop inappropriate behavior such as violent behavior or using curse words
If you are struggling with your child’s behavior, positive reinforcement is one of the most effective strategies that can get them to listen.
This discipline strategy has nothing to do with bribing your child. It is about teaching them to replace negative traits (not listening) with positive ones (doing what they are expected to do) over the long-term.
Positive reinforcement is an approach that is centered on helping your child develop new positive habits. As such, it requires a specific step-by-step approach to your child’s behavior.
The first step is to determine the exact negative behavior you would like to eliminate. The second step is to identify the behavior with which you want to replace it. The third is to choose appropriate reinforcers and to determine an appropriate reinforcement schedule. The fourth is to gradually reduce reinforcement as your child adopts new behavior.
Positive reinforcement is often applied inappropriately, meaning that it can make bad behavior worse. This guide will walk you through everything you need to know to make this strategy work. It will also outline all the pitfalls you need to avoid.
Does your child “have to listen”? Setting limits that work
Although children need appropriate limits, too many limits can be stifling and can actually be the reason behind why they don’t listen. Also, having too many limits means that monitoring all of them is a next to impossible task.
Your child not listening to you isn’t always a bad thing. A child who is able to express their personal preferences becomes an adult capable of making their own decisions.
When you respect your child as an individual, it will be easier to accept that they do not always have to “do as they are told”.
This is especially important as your child grows older. Moreover, the more you allow them to practice making decisions and being accountable for their choices, the easier it will be to make good decisions in adolescence and beyond.
That said, a child shouldn’t have a choice where certain issues – for instance safety issues – are concerned:
- “You put on your helmet when you ride your bike… period”
- “You give me your hand when we’re in a parking lot… period”
- “You do not cross the street alone… period”
- “You do not go to the swimming pool by yourself…period”
Setting limits helps you determine what really matters, but it is important to know where to draw the line. When you set too many limits, you prevent your child from differentiating between your negotiables and non-negotiables and you also stand a higher risk of ruining your parent-child relationship, both in childhood and beyond.
When setting limits, the focus should always be on finding the right balance and on creating a framework that allows your child to express themselves but also clearly lays down your expectations and respects your own personal or family values.
Here are four important questions to consider when setting limits:
- How important is this to me?
- How important is this to my child?
- Does this concern my negotiable or non-negotiable values?
- Is it reasonable?
Here at some practical examples:
- “Put on your blue skirt” – how important is it that your child puts on their blue skirt? SHOULD YOU SET A LIMIT?
- Share your toys – how important is it that your child shares their toys? How important is it to them? If they have just received a new toy, is it fair to ask them to share it immediately? Is this reasonable? SHOULD YOU SET A LIMIT?
- Don’t hit/bite your sister/brother/others – How important is it that your child stops hitting. Is this a negotiable or non-negotiable value? SHOULD YOU SET A LIMIT?
- Do your homework now – What is your child doing when you ask them to do their homework? SHOULD YOU SET A LIMIT?
Explaining your non-negotiables to your child can make it easier for them to listen when it really matters and to meet your expectations. Remember that allowing them to have their say gives them a sense of autonomy and increases the chances that they will do what is expected of them without you having to nag or yell.
Here are a few examples of how you can talk about your non-negotiables while making your child feel like their opinion matters.
- “Tasha, we need to speak about house chores. Everyone has to do at least two house chores every week. Here is a list of the things that need to be done. What chores would you like to do? When?”
- “Tasha, you know that everyone who lives in this house has to do chores. It’s not fair on the rest of us when your part is not done. What do you think is a fair consequence when you forget to do your chores?”
- “Tasha, you can do your homework whenever you like, but it has to be done by 6 p.m. every day.”
- “Tasha, you can play your videogame for 30 minutes every day, but only after your homework is done”
Setting appropriate limits and consequences makes your child responsible for their behavior. Once you do so, you need to avoid reminding them of what they are expected to do – that’s the hard part 😉 – and to trust them to do whatever they need to do.
If they do not, consistently applying the consequences agreed upon will make clearer the relationship between choices and consequences.
Such an approach reduces the need to keep repeating yourself to get your child to listen, and it also teaches them about choices and accountability, right from childhood. The earlier they learn these skills, the easier it will be for them to get things done without being “nagged” as they grow older.