As a parent, there are few things more frustrating than being ignored by your child. There is something infuriating about asking your child to do something simple and having them either ignore you or flat out refuse.
Whatever challenges you’re facing with getting your kids to listen, understanding the reason behind their (lack of) response can go a long way toward helping you respond effectively. Be sure to protect your relationship with your child while you work through this challenge and do what you need to do to encourage them to listen before you get annoyed.
Here are eight possible reasons your child isn’t listening, and positive parenting strategies to help you get through it:
Reason 1: Because they don’t hear you
Sometimes the simplest explanation is the right one. Our children get so engrossed in what they’re doing—drawing a detailed treasure map or building an elaborate Lego creation—that they literally may not hear us.
This is especially true if you call out a request in passing, while you’re doing something else. They may just interpret this as background noise.
Positive parenting strategy: Wait for their attention
Get down on your child’s level, make eye contact and then make your request. Whether or not they comply, you will at least be sure that your child heard you.
Reason 2: Because they don’t want to
This reason is the classic example of “maybe if I pretend this isn’t happening, the problem will go away.” Sometimes, often really, our children simply don’t want to do what we ask. Not because they’re being defiant or spiteful or trying to use up our very last ounce of patience, but simply because they have conflicting desires. They may ignore our instructions that it’s time to leave the park simply because they want to keep playing, for example.
Positive parenting strategy: Acknowledge their feelings
Let them know that you empathize with their feelings. Try saying, “I know you’re disappointed that we have to leave when you’re having so much fun, that’s a hard feeling.”
Simply letting them know that you see that something is important to them goes a long way in soliciting their cooperation.
Reason 3: Because they don’t understand
We often give children long explanations for what we want them to do, but it’s easy to forget that their brain works differently than ours. Especially for young children, this can be too much for them to process. It may seem like they’re ignoring us simply because they don’t understand what we’ve asked.
Positive parenting strategy: Use fewer words
When asking a young child to do something, use as few words as possible. “Find your shoes” is much more effective than “Please go find your shoes so that we can get in the car and get to school on time.”
4. Reason: Because they’re asserting their will
This is perhaps one of the most infuriating reasons, but it is natural and healthy nonetheless. Young children need to assert their will, to demonstrate that they are their own little people, and unfortunately this sometimes means saying “no” just to say “no.”
Positive parenting strategy: Offer a choice
Offering simple choices gives your child a feeling of control and lets them know that you see them as capable of making decisions.
Reason 5: Because they’re busy
Whatever our child is doing at the moment may not look important to us, but it is certainly important to them. If we ask them to come eat lunch or start their homework when they’re working on the last pieces of a puzzle, it is every bit as annoying to them as someone interrupting us when we’re drafting an important email or editing a document.
Positive parenting strategy: Wait, or give a time warning
If it’s at all possible, wait until your child is done with whatever they’re doing to make a request. Of course if they’re in the early stages of a 500 piece puzzle, this won’t be possible.
In this case, give a time warning. Try going over to your child, putting a hand on their shoulder and saying something like, “I know you’re working hard on your puzzle, but in 10 minutes, we’ll need to leave for the grocery store.”
Reason 6: Because they’re tired
As you’ve probably noticed, children’s ability to listen decreases in the evening hours. Their still-developing impulse control is weaker when they’re tired and they may not be capable of following directions at this time of day. The challenging part of course is that you’re also tired in the evenings, so it’s hard not to lose patience.
Positive parenting strategy: Adjust expectations
Reason 7: Because they don’t know the rules
It’s easy to forget that children don’t always know basic rules like how to behave in a museum. They also don’t know the plans we have in our mind if we don’t tell them.
If they have a totally different idea in their mind for how the day will go, they will inevitably struggle when you ask them to do something that doesn’t align with their own plan.
Positive parenting strategy: Prepare them
Set expectations ahead of time. If you’re going to the library, remind your child to use a quiet voice and walk before you go in. If you’re going to the park, let them know you will be leaving after they eat lunch at the picnic table.
Your child may still forget or protest, but if they know what to expect, they will be more likely to comply. Also, don’t make it a power struggle, which essentially forces your child to refuse what you’re asking them to do in their mind.
Instead of trying to force their hand, try simply stating the facts. Say something like, “if you put away your blocks now, we’ll have time to read two bedtime stories.” Then walk away or look busy straightening up the house. If your child is strong-willed, they will be much more likely to comply if you’re not staring them down.
Reason 8: Because they need connection
When children do what we ask them to, they are essentially putting aside their own will and desires to please us. They want to please us. They have a much harder time doing this though if they don’t feel connected, and they need us to reestablish this connection regularly.
Positive parenting strategy: Connect
The number one way to get children to listen is to make sure they feel connected to you before you ask them to do something. If they’ve had a long day at school, they may need some extra snuggles before you ask them to go through the bedtime routine.