Once children enter the pre-K phase of life, parents may find themselves asking the same question over and over again: “Why aren’t you listening?!?”
If you’ve noticed that your little one just isn’t following directions or paying attention, here are some things to keep in mind as you help them get better at this very important skill.
(Note: All of the advice offered in this post is for neurotypical children. If you’re the parent of a neurodiverse child — one who has autism, is on the spectrum, has ADHD, or has other developmental differences — these tips may not be effective or work at all. Check out the resources at Autism Speaks, ADDitude Magazine, or the CDC for advice that may help you more.)
When parents say, “My child isn’t listening to me,” what they often mean is, “My child isn’t obeying me,” or “My child isn’t following my instructions.” It doesn’t actually have anything to do with their ability to hear.
Obedience and following instructions are important skills to learn, but that’s the thing — they are learned skills. Children are very self-centered and don’t have the ability to even consider other people and their feelings. So remember that as you struggle through the times when your preschooler may seem to disregard a lot of what you say. It’s normal behavior, and you’ll have to teach them how to consider others, follow instructions, and listen to the people who care for them.
6 Reasons Why Your Child Doesn’t Listen
Here are six of the top reasons your child may not be listening to your instructions.
- Their Developmental Stage – The most empathetic reason your child might not be listening to you is because their brains literally can’t keep up with what you are saying. Depending on the developmental stage your child is in, they may not be doing what you ask because you’re either saying too much too quickly or their brains aren’t developed enough to remember multiple instructions.
- They’re Asserting Themselves – Did you know that preschoolers and toddlers have opinions? (Shocking, we know.) Not listening might be one of the ways they’ve decided to gain some control in their life.
- They’re Distracted – Is there a screen on nearby? Is there a distraction happening around you? Is your child getting ready to start an activity? If anything else is more exciting than what you have to say, it could keep your child from fully being present while you’re talking.
- They Just Don’t Want To – This may be the go-to reason for parents for explaining why their child isn’t listening, but it actually only accounts for a small fraction of the times a child chooses not to obey.
- They Are Conditioned to Wait Until You Yell – This might require some painful self-reflection, but the next time you find yourself saying, “You aren’t listening,” ask yourself if you yelled it. If so, it may be that your child has gotten used to responding to your angry voice instead of your request.
- Your Words & Actions Don’t Match – This is another painful exercise, but be introspective and evaluate whether you are practicing what you preach. Are you asking your child to pick up their room when yours is a mess? Are you asking them to speak nicely to their siblings and turning around and shouting “Stop!” at them?
7 Ways to Help Your Children Listen
- When You Can, Use a Single Word – This doesn’t work all of the time, but the main idea is “less is more.” Your children will almost always understand what’s expected of them, so use a single command they can follow instead of lots of words that give them permission to tune out. A simple, “Shoes!” or “Teeth!” or “Plates!” will oftentimes be enough for them to act.
- Give Age-Appropriate Commands – Especially when they’re little, be aware of what you’re asking your child to do and make sure it’s age-appropriate. A 2-year-old cannot clean their room, and a 4-year-old still may not fully comprehend the concept of time. Make sure they can follow through on your instructions, and help them if they can’t.
- Give Them a Choice – This might make you cringe, but let your child choose differently — even when you know it won’t go well. This also helps you keep your cool by removing the pressure that comes with forcing your child to comply. For example, if you’ve asked your child to eat their vegetables and they won’t, then simply enact the consequences that stem from their not listening. Once they see their choices have consequences outside of “mom and dad get mad,” they may start to change their tune.
- State Your Expectations – Especially when kids are engrossed in another activity or don’t want to do what you’re asking, stating expectations early is a good idea. Setting timers or giving quick reminders help your kid slowly disconnect from what they’re doing and prepare for a transition. If they know you’re leaving in 15 minutes or that bedtime is in 20, they’re less likely to ignore you when you need them to act.
- State Commands Positively – “No,” “Stop,” “Quit,” and “Don’t do that,” are all phrases that get tuned out pretty fast. It will take some practice, but replace these easy-to-shout phrases with more positive commands. Instead of, “Stop running,” try, “Slow down.” Instead of, “Stop that,” try, “Sit on your bottom.”
- Be Physically Present – Shouting commands (even well-worded ones) from across the house is the kid equivalent of getting a strongly worded email … it’s completely ignorable. When you’re asking something from your child, be in the room and make good eye contact. That may also require stepping in front of a TV screen or turning your child so they’re facing you.
- Reward Listening – Make sure your little one knows, feels, and understands that listening is rewarded. That will look different for every child, but speak to their love language when they practice good listening.
Make Sure You Mean It
When it comes to teaching your kids to listen and do what you ask, the most important thing you can do as a parent is to follow through.
Kids are quick. If you ask your child to clean their room but clean it yourself when they don’t act, you reinforce that they don’t need to listen to your requests because (ultimately) the request doesn’t matter. Or if you promise consequences for not listening but don’t enforce them, your child learns that there are no consequences for not listening.
So no matter the reason for their lack of motivation to listen, make sure you are doing your part as the parent and following through on your age-appropriate requests and the consequences for not listening to them.
If both of those things happen, your child will eventually learn that it’s much easier to listen the first time you ask.