Every parent wants to know: “How do I get my kids to listen?”

Being ignored is so frustrating!!

There are 4 big reasons why kids don’t listen to us:

  • they don’t hear us
  • they don’t like what we are asking them to do
  • they are not taking us seriously
  • they are being provocative

Let’s look at why these things happen and how we can get our kids to cooperate.

Reason #1: When our children don’t listen because they don’t actually hear us.

Sometimes when we talk to our kids and and they’re engrossed in an activity – playing Lego, or watching a show – we get no response. Don’t assume that they’re just ignoring you or trying to be difficult. It could be that, because of their brain development, they actually don’t hear you.

Until their brain is more mature, a child can only focus on one idea at a time.

Between the ages of five and seven, or a little bit later for more sensitive kids, children go through a period of brain development called the Five-to-Seven Shift. Before this, their brains aren’t mature enough to hold two ideas in their heads at once.

Until their brains are more mature, children can get completely lost in thought or engrossed in play- the real work of childhood. They aren’t ignoring you- your words just aren’t getting through.

If you call your child and they’re not responding, try this:
:: go over and tap them on their shoulder
:: get in their face in a friendly way
:: do eyes, smile, nod (borrowed from Gordon Neufeld.) Look into their eyes, smile to make a connection with them, and nod. “Okay, you hear me. I have your attention.”

THEN you make your request or give directions.

(If your child is uncomfortable with direct eye contact, ask for another cue to show they are listening. For example, “Give me a nod if you can hear me.”)

This is helpful even if your kids are older- always get their attention and make a connection before you make a request or give instruction. It is much more effective.

Reason #2: When children don’t listen because they don’t like what you’re asking them to do.

They may be thinking: “If I pretend I don’t hear her, then I don’t have to go and get ready for bed.”

Haven’t you been tempted to ignore a request you aren’t thrilled about?

Try this: If your child isn’t listening because they don’t like what you’re saying, try to find a win/win solution.

They don’t want to get ready for bed? “Let’s pretend that you’re a baby panda and I’m the mommy panda. Do you want to ride on my back up to our panda house?” If you can find a way to make it fun, your child will be way more willing to cooperate!

When we talk about listening, we are really talking about cooperation.

Kids will listen, or cooperate with what you are asking, when you have given them a reason to buy in to your request.

Give them an invitation to play (as in the baby panda example) or give them something to work toward: “After you get your jammies on we can read three stories!”

Finding a win/win solution makes doing something they don’t want to do attractive enough to make them go along with you.

Reason #3: Sometimes kids don’t listen because we have inadvertently trained them to ignore us.

If this is familiar: you are running around the house, trying to get ready, and you’re repeatedly calling up to your five year old that it’s time to get ready, and they keep playing- you have trained them to ignore you. They can keep playing and NOT do what you say.

Your fix: don’t let them ignore you and don’t repeat yourself. When you repeat yourself, you’re teaching your child that you don’t mean it the first time.

Here’s how you can get back on track and make these transitions go smoothly.

Note: What I am going to recommend does take time and effort and creativity. And you have to be in a decent or at least neutral mood. But ask yourself how much time you spend TRYING to get your kids to listen- and what kind of mood you’re in at the end of that? This is worth it- and will save you so much heartache down the road.

Get in their face in a friendly way. Eyes, smile, nod from the beginning of this post.

Give a choice: “Hey Stevie, it’s going to be be time to go soon to school. Do you want to go now or in five minutes?”

Agree on it: “Okay, deal, we’re going to go in five minutes? Yup, deal.” Shake on it, get them to agree, pinky shake, across your heart, in five minutes it’s going to be time to get ready.

Five minutes is up: Don’t leave your child’s side until they are coming with you. If they say, “Five more minutes,” and you can’t say, “Okay, five more minutes.” You really have to stick to what you originally said.

Connect: “You’re having a great time with your Lego! I love that guy that you built”

Find a win/win solution.

Use play to get cooperation! “Do you want to bring your Lego guy to the car with you? And you can tell me all about it. He can ride in your pocket. Do you want to fly him over to the door?”

Or give an invitation to play: “Do you want to race me to the door, we can see who can get their shoes on first.” “Do you want a piggyback ride?”

Give choices: “Do you want me to carry you or do you want to walk?” Work with your child to find that win-win solution to get them to move towards the door.

Amazing! You’ve begun the training-them-to-cooperate process. You have NOT given your child the option to ignore you (remember- you don’t leave their side until they’re coming with you!) and you HAVE found a win/win solution so they will listen and cooperate.

Maybe this will be a magic wand right away- or maybe it will take some practice, effort and time to make this work. But if you stick with it you will be building a habit of cooperation – not ignoring you and conflict.

If you find that your child is ignoring you- Have you gotten their attention and connected before giving instruction or making a request? Have you looked for win/win solutions when they don’t like what you are asking? Have you given them the option to ignore you by not being involved enough in the process of moving along?

Don’t talk to a wall and expect your child will hear you and listen. Don’t give a million chances hoping they will magically comply. That’s when we get mad and start yelling!

Set your limit early and scaffold them to meet your expectations by getting their attention first, making cooperation more desirable, and NOT giving them the option to ignore you. With these small shifts- you can get your child to listen to you!

Reason #4: Your child is being provocative.

If your child is STILL not cooperating? They just might need to cry! A child who is being rigid and difficult is often a child who has been bottling up all sorts of big feelings. Help them get a release through tears. You’ll find they are much more cooperative after.

Tried all this and you’re still having trouble? Why not sign up for a free short consult? I’m here to help you help your child. <3 

If you’ve gotten in the habit of yelling to get your kids to listen- sign up for my  “How To Stop Yelling At Your Kids”e-course.

  1. Vikki says:

    What about a forth option, they hear you but they’re being defiant. I.e. you ask them to stop doing something (ex/ hitting), they hear you and do it again.

    • That is so hard! It sounds like your child is picking a fight! Kids sometimes do this when they feel crappy and don’t know what to do with their difficult feelings (i don’t think I’m alone in having done this before with my husband! 🙂 )
      Here’s an article that should help-
      xx Sarah

    • Dréa says:

      I would actually think this one just falls into the 2nd category, no? “When children don’t listen because they don’t like what you’re asking them to do.”

  2. Paige says:

    How to get my 6 year old son
    Emotionally ready for First grade?
    He cried last January on the way
    To school and at school.
    I don’t want him to be made
    Fun of.

  3. NF says:

    Hi Sarah!

    Thank you for this article. This is the habit (the habit of paying attention) that we are focused on in my house, so it’s very timely. I am certainly guilty of encouraging my kids to ignore me! 🙁

    I’d like to ask a follow-up. In the plan you outline above, you get in Stevie’s face in a nice way, and get his agreement that in five minutes, you’re all leaving, and he’ll be ready. What do you – Mom/Dad – do for that five minutes? Hover to be sure he’s readying himself? If not, what if you leave the room to grab the lunch boxes or whatever, and now 5 mins is up, and he still isn’t ready? I think that might be when I blow it!

    Or, if I don’t blow it, it turns me into a nagging helicopter parent the next time we go through the process, because I know “Stevie” can’t be trusted to live up to his side of the agreement.

  4. He’s allowed to be playing for that 5 minutes while you’re getting ready. Then you help him do whatever he needs to do- it’s not that he is supposed to use the 5 min to get ready. Does that help? xx

  5. Eva says:

    Hi Sarah, my son 12 years old knows that there are certain things I don’t want him to do. Big subject cellphone…even when WiFi is off still the device is in his hands. When I tell him to put it away or at night time outside his room, will not do it. Lots of emotions …I tried many ways but nothing really changed. Eva, single mom

    • hi! At 12 I am assuming you pay for his phone? I think it’s fair to say that if he can’t follow the limits you have set out (hopefully you and he can sit down together to decide what is fair) then you take the phone away. He still needs you to help him with limits! Good luck

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