Why Kids Don’t Listen
One of the first children I worked with was a six year old who struggled to listen. He fought and ignored any direction the adults in his life tried to give. Leaving for school was a battle. Going home from school was a battle. Doing activities he didn’t enjoy led to screaming, hiding, and tears. His parents were exhausted and his teachers were stumped. The adults in his world wanted him to listen but listening was the last thing on his mind.
His behavior made me wonder what life was like through his eyes. Knowing that talking and discipline wasn’t changing his behavior, I tried something different: Legos.
Imagine being six years old, having little to no control over your life, and feeling overwhelmed by the expectations of adults. It might make sense that you start to tune the world out and turn to tears when you don’t know how to respond. What this six year old did know was Legos. And through creating, building, and disassembling legos, he showed me that he was a wonderful listener. He just hadn’t learned to listen in the ways adults expected.
After getting to know this child through his language of play, I learned three important things that he was trying to tell us:
- He was highly sensitive to sounds, which explained why yelling and nagging was causing him more frustration
- He didn’t understand time, which explained why he seemed to ignore the tasks he was assigned and made getting through challenging tasks unbearable
- He was tired, which helped explain why going to school (waking up) and going home from school (being exhausted after a day of learning) were so difficult
After figuring out what he needed, the adults in his world were able to communicate on his level.
- We stopped yelling and lowered our voice
- We used visual timers and visual schedules to help him understand the pace of his day
- His parents and pediatrician came up with a plan to improve his sleep
We soon found that he had been hearing us all along, he just didn’t know how to respond. Once we adjusted our approach, he understood us and we understood him.
I share this story to illustrate how our efforts to communicate with kids can be lost in translation. While there will be times our kids intentionally ignore what we’re saying, more often than not, there’s a good reason for their lack of listening.
Here are some common reasons that kids don’t listen:
- They don’t understand what is being asked
- They are overwhelmed by our directions
- They have lost trust in what we say
- They want to feel connected, not controlled
- They want US to listen
Understanding Your Child
If our boss keeps asking us to do something and we’re struggling to get it done, we will use our resources to solve the problem. We may Google a solution, ask a colleague, or avoid the task altogether. If a child is asked to do something challenging or unappealing, they will likely respond nonverbally.
Children may cry, yell, or complain as means of communicating. They may also tantrum, hide, fight back, or run away. Nonverbal reactions are a signal that your child is trying to connect with you. When you see these behaviors, don’t be alarmed. Your child is telling you they are listening and they need your help. Now is a good time to proceed with curiosity.
- Get down on their level
- Lower your voice
- Keep your words brief
Here’s an example scenario and response:
Your five year old is refusing to eat anything other than dinosaur chicken nuggets for dinner. You remind her that dad made a special dinner and she needs to eat what everyone else is eating. When the issue is pressed, she starts crying and yelling. You want to control the situation and threaten her behavior with a loss of iPad time. Instead, you…
- Approach her with curiosity
- Lower your voice and get down on her level.
- Help her organize her emotional response before using reason or logic to solve the problem. You could try saying something like, “You must be frustrated. You really wanted something else for dinner.” She may respond by correcting you, “No, I’m not frustrated, I’m mad!!”. Or, she may respond by confirming your observation.
Regardless of how your child responds, acknowledging their experience is the first step. Your acknowledgment leads them towards an awareness of their feelings and communicates that you are listening.
Communicating With Your Child Through Connection
Dr. Daniel Siegel, a renowned educator and child psychiatrist, calls the practice described in the example above: “Name it to Tame it”. By naming how we feel, we can integrate language with emotion and move from a place of disorder to balance (Firestone, 2022).
When kids ignore us or don’t follow our direction, it’s tempting to respond with lectures and consequences. If you’ve ever tried to lecture an already upset child, you know how frustrating and disconnecting it feels. Keep these connection-focused things in mind next time you approach a disconnected child:
- Connect with your child before teaching or redirecting them. This can look as simple as helping them name their feelings or acknowledging that they’re upset
- When we respond to a child’s upset with our own frustration, no one wins
- While lecturing and laying out consequences may seem most logical, emotionally heated moments are typically not rooted in logic
- When we use threats or punishment to manage behavior, we are prioritizing control over connection
- Once you’ve connected with your child, you can offer an alternative or work on a compromise. You may say something like: “We are eating dad’s special dinner now. If you’re still hungry when we’re done, you can help me make dinosaur chicken nuggets.”
By remaining calm and concise, you communicate that your expectations are firm but fair. This practice also teaches your child that you are predictable and true to your word. When people trust what we say, they are more likely to listen.
No More Power Struggles
When you think of a power struggle, you might imagine an old Western movie with two feuding cowboys. Neither is willing to back down or admit defeat. They engage in a show down where one person wins or both lose. In matters of life and death, power struggles are justified. In our day to day interactions, power struggles are exhausting and detract from trusting, cooperative relationships.
While we may know better, it’s not uncommon to find ourselves in a power struggle with kids. Their tendency to use the word “no” may be part of the challenge. Eager to protect and teach, we might respond to their lack of listening by doubling down and getting louder. In those moments, the best thing we can do is surrender.
Surrender doesn’t mean allowing your child to run the show. Surrender means that you offer support, state your expectation, and walk away. There is no arguing, bargaining, or yelling.
Another way to avoid power struggles is to “pick your battles” (Morin, 2021). If your child absolutely does not listen when you ask them to do something, you can:
- Decide if this is a challenge you have the time and energy to face
- Remember that the battle isn’t you against your child. It’s you and your child against the problem.
- Consider an alternative approach that meets your needs and your child’s abilities
- Focus on teaching your child to listen during neutral moments when emotions aren’t clouding your problem solving skills
For the battles that have less consequence, save yourself the stress and walk away before a power struggle can even begin.
Building Your Child’s Listening Muscles
As adults, we can go through most of our day on autopilot. In a matter of seconds, we decide if 15 minutes is enough time to get coffee before work. Without saying anything, we consider: “Is there a line at Caribou? What’s traffic like? How important is this 8 AM meeting?”
For children who are still learning the link between cause and effect, our ability to plan ahead can make life look easy. Of course we know that’s not the case. And our kids can learn that too.
One way to teach children to listen is to “think aloud”. This exercise also builds empathy, cooperation, and problem solving skills. At first, it may seem silly. But the effects are easy to observe.
Next time you have to do something that takes thinking, start talking to yourself. Here’s an example:
You need to go to bed but you really want to watch your favorite show. Instead of quietly summoning the willpower to turn off the TV, start talking. “I wish I could keep watching this show. I really need to go to bed. I know! I’ll watch it tomorrow after I get home. That will give me something to be excited for when I get home.” Say this to yourself but within earshot of your kids. At first they may look at you with confusion. But soon you may notice that they are thinking aloud too.
I encourage caregivers to “think aloud” big emotions while offering ideas for managing them. This teaches children that feeling confused, uncertain, or upset are normal experiences and can be dealt with.
You may also find that your child tries to connect with you when you voice your thoughts. When they start offering solutions, you’ll know they are exercising their listening skills and strengthening their ability to problem solve.
Filling Your Parenting Patience Tank
Let’s face it, trying to teach a child to listen is a skill that takes a lifetime to develop. They can and will learn to listen, but it won’t be because we lectured or disciplined them. Children learn best through continued interactions with understanding peers and adults.
What happens when our understanding is stretched thin and our patience tank is empty?
- Remember that you don’t have to be a perfect parent
- As the psychologist and scholar Bruno Bettleheim asserted, “Good enough parents do not strive to be perfect parents and do not expect perfection from their children (Gray, 2015)”.
- If we can accept that our children have challenges, we can acknowledge and have compassion for our own difficulties
If your patience tank has been empty and isn’t refilling despite your best efforts, it is worth asking for help from a trusted friend, family member, or mental health provider. Everyone deserves to be heard; that includes you!
Blog written by Sentier Child Therapist, Lily Ferreira, MSW, LICSW
Firestone, L. (2022, February 1). Name It to Tame It: The Emotions Underlying Your Triggers. Psychology Today. Retrieved January 24, 2023, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/compassion-matters/202202/name-it-tame-it-the-emotions-underlying-your-triggers
Gray, P. (2015, December 22). The Good Enough Parent Is the Best Parent. Psychology Today. Retrieved January 24, 2023, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/freedom-learn/201512/the-good-enough-parent-is-the-best-parent
Morin, A. (2021, January 16). How to Avoid Power Struggles with Children. Verywell Family. Retrieved January 24, 2023, from https://www.verywellfamily.com/how-to-avoid-power-struggles-with-children-1094751