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How To Get Kids To Listen

Every parent struggles at some point with how to get kids to listen. It can be frustrating to have to repeat the same request or argument every day.

“Didn’t I tell you not to touch that bowl?”

“This is the fifth time I’ve asked you to clean up the dining table.”

Sound familiar, don’t they?

Why does my child not listen

It is common for parents to be frustrated with a child who will not listen.

Parents often ask how to discipline their kids or how to get them to listen.

The question, “Why doesn’t my child listen? ” rarely comes up.

Let’s learn why children don’t listen before we discuss how to get them to do so.

The following are plausible scenarios for not listening:

  • They didn’t hear you.
  • They didn’t understand.
  • They couldn’t do it.
  • They didn’t want to do it.

These are the reasons behind those scenarios and why kids don’t listen:

An aversive tone

At the beginning of their lives, we understood that our young children might not have heard or understood what we asked of them. So we managed to be patient.

But when they reach school-age, the first three scenarios above won’t even cross your mind because oftentimes, older children don’t listen because they don’t want to.

So, we become impatient, annoyed, irritated, and angry.

Our first reaction is to think they are intentionally being defiant.

After numerous requests, yelling usually follows out of exhaustion and rage in order to get their attention and get them to comply.

But as we know, yelling rarely works because children tend not to comply with instructions given in an aversive manner​1​.

Doesn’t that make sense?

As parents, we teach our children to be polite when they make requests. However, when we ask our kids to listen, we often lose our patience and forget to use good manners.

Short-term focus on compliance

By focusing on short-term obedience, we lose sight of the overall goal of parenting.

Researchers have found that parents who focus more on short-term compliance are less likely to be nurturing. They tend to use less reasoning and more punishment to get immediate results​2​.

In the long run, parents who focus on the short-term may end up with more negativity in their children and less cooperation.

Controlling parenting

Our kids must listen to certain things. Things related to safety and health, for instance. But some parents control more than just the things that must be controlled.

Children with controlling parents do not just listen less, they are also more aggressive when they do not comply​3​.

Stressed parent-child relationship

A close, positive relationship makes one more likely to listen to others’ requests. This also applies to the parent-child bonds​4​.

Controlling behavior, angry arguments, and harsh punishment can all ruin a relationship and make the child not want to listen to you.

girl jumps into a pool - How to get my 5 year old to listen and behave

How to discipline a child that won’t listen

Next time your child doesn’t listen, the first step is to take a deep breath. Then follow these simple tips.

Get their attention

Asking for eye contact is an effective technique to get their full attention, whether they are toddlers or teenagers. When they are looking at their tablet or cellphone, it is hard for them to listen to you.

Getting your child’s attention will also help them develop their active listening skills to become a good listener.

Discipline to teach, not to punish

We must distinguish discipline from punishment. The two are not the same.

To discipline is to teach. Punishing is not the only thing that can get children to learn. There are many more effective ways to teach than punishment.

At the end of the day, we all want to raise kids who have good judgment and do the right thing when we’re not there to tell them what to do.

But how can they do that without practicing making decisions – and making some of their own mistakes?

Just as falling is an integral part of learning to walk, making bad decisions is an integral part of learning to make good choices.

We don’t punish a child for falling when they’re learning to walk. So don’t punish your child for failing to make a sound judgment. They need practice and experience to refine their judging skills.

baby feet on grownup feet learning to walk -  how to make kids listen - toddler not listening the first time

Use inductive discipline

Inductive discipline relies on using reasoning to teach in a positive way. The benefit of teaching children a sound decision-making process is far greater than immediate obedience.

Parents who use inductive discipline instead of punishment (especially spanking) have fewer bad behavior issues and more cooperative behavior in their children​5​.

When you don’t agree with their decisions, instead of saying they’re wrong, ask them questions. Ask them why they think it’s a good idea to do things this way. Ask them what they will feel about the predictable (negative) results.

Come up with different scenarios to help them think through all the possible outcomes. Help them identify the likely negative results, and ask them if they can change their decisions to prevent them.

You’ll be teaching them critical thinking skills and a sound decision-making process. Your child will benefit for life from learning these vital skills and self-control early on.

There are advantages to reasoning that don’t just apply to older kids. It can be introduced to toddlers as well. Try explaining more than commanding. Make it a habit and both of you will benefit.

Use natural consequences when it’s safe to do so

When children don’t listen, and when the issue is not related to anyone’s safety or health, let them experience the natural consequences.

In most cases, experiencing the natural consequences of lousy decision-making is itself enough for them to learn the lesson. 

Piling punishment on top will take their focus away from absorbing the lesson and taking responsibility for their error. If you punish them, they’ll be preoccupied with anger and resentment; they will redirect their frustration with themselves to frustration with you.

Sometimes, parents are controlling because they want to protect their children from failure. In doing so, however, the parents become the obstacle, not only an obstacle to the consequences but also an obstacle to their belief in those consequences.

They don’t realize what the actual consequences are when they are busy fighting with you. They may have to fail to realize that your warning was real.

It is actually better for children to fail earlier rather than later. When they fail early, they learn early.

For example, your kid doesn’t do his homework without your constant reminding, nagging, and yelling. You feel that you have to do this because, otherwise, your child will fail in school.

But constant nagging and yelling won’t work on children forever. Sooner or later, the stubborn ones will stop responding to this and, in fact, fail. 

When kids fail early, the failure is usually smaller, the consequence less severe and recovery easier. They are also more likely to learn the lesson because they haven’t become entrenched in a pattern of resistance by fighting you on it for years.

If it’s safe to do so, let them fail, sooner rather than later before they have to make critical decisions in life.

Mom helps son with homework - How to deal with a child that doesn't listen - toddler, 2 year old

Model good behavior

Another way to teach and get them to listen is by modeling.

Consider your daily interactions with your child. How often do you listen to and accept their reasonable request?

It will be hard to expect your child to give you a simple “yes” if you are constantly saying “no”. It is also unrealistic to expect that your child will speak politely and respectfully if your tone is mean and aversive.

Model the behavior you wish to see in your child. Show your child how to be positive and cooperative.

And don’t just focus on their negative behavior. Give them positive attention and praises for displaying good behavior, too.

Teach and practice respectful disagreement

Respect is another thing parents must model for their children.

Respect is not only for grownups. It is important that both parents and children have mutual respect even when they disagree.

Children and parents often clash over their tones – the parent’s tone and the child’s tone.

Be respectful even when we are upset. Avoid having an aggressive tone of voice or displaying confrontational body language.

When a child feels respected, they are more likely to listen when you have something important to say.

Review your house rules

How many rules do you have in your house?

If your children seem never to listen, chances are they are using every opportunity to fight back against your attempts to control every aspect of their lives.

Too many rules are a sign of controlling parenting. In addition to kids not listening, controlling parents may cause a range of mental problems in them, including depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem​6​.

Students who are deprived of autonomy, i.e. a sense of control over their lives, will perform poorly at school due to a lack of motivation. They may, therefore, seem to not listen to your pleas to study​7​.

Having autonomy is one of the basic needs of humans. Give them enough freedom to make their own decisions on non-critical issues, and they will listen to you on the critical ones.

Review what you absolutely need to control versus what your child can explore on their own. Some of the social rules we have as adults are necessary, while others are purely our own preferences. Only keep and insist on those that you have good reasons to do so.

Strengthen the parent-child relationship

Your message and your request are more likely to be heard by your child when you have a good relationship with them.

Children naturally love their parents from the moment they were born. However, the daily stress of life turns parents into unlovable people (after all, who loves someone who yells at you and punishes you constantly?)

Our relationship with our children will be improved when we put aside our short-term wants (e.g. obedience) and focus on helping them develop long-term qualities (e.g. good judgment, self-control, respect, and independence).

Look out for deviant peers

During adolescence, peer influence can have a major impact on your child’s compliance. Affiliation with deviant peers can also increase the likelihood of high-risk behavior such as drinking or using drugs​8​.

Monitor your child’s social circle closely, but without being intrusive.

Woman puts both hands together on her nose and closes her eyes - How to make kids listen - 4 year old kids not listening - how to get my 6 year old to listen and behave

Final Thoughts On How To Get Kids To Listen

The purpose of getting children to listen is to help them make fewer mistakes. In the end, we want them to grow into independent and well-adjusted adults. 

The key to getting kids to listen is not to have complete control over them. In the early years when our kids were completely dependent on us, we seemed to be in full control of them. But one day, we will not have that advantage. Harmony in the home doesn’t require total control. Accepting that you cannot control anyone except yourself will make you a much happier person. There will be fewer power struggles and your home a happier and more peaceful place.

Have a teenager? Find out how to make your teenager listen.

Man, woman and boy ride happily on the same bike - How to get your kids to listen - 3 years old doesn't listen

Need Help Motivating Kids?

If you are looking for additional tips and an actual step-by-step plan, this online course How To Motivate Kids is a great place to start.

It gives you the steps you need to identify motivation issues in your child and effective strategies you can apply to help your child build self-motivation and become passionate about learning.

Once you know this science-based strategy, motivating your child becomes easy and stress-free.


References

  1. 1.
    Dumas JE, Lechowicz JG. When Do Noncompliant Children Comply? Child & Family Behavior Therapy. Published online December 21, 1989:21-38. doi:10.1300/j019v11n03_02
  2. 2.
    Kuczynski L. Socialization goals and mother-child interaction: Strategies for long-term and short-term compliance. Developmental Psychology. Published online 1984:1061-1073. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.20.6.1061
  3. 3.
    Braungart-Rieker J, Garwood MM, Stifter CA. Compliance and noncompliance: the roles of maternal control and child temperament. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. Published online 1997:411-428. doi:10.1016/s0193-3973(97)80008-1
  4. 4.
    Phinney JS, Kim-Jo T, Osorio S, Vilhjalmsdottir P. Autonomy and Relatedness in Adolescent-Parent Disagreements. Journal of Adolescent Research. Published online January 2005:8-39. doi:10.1177/0743558404271237
  5. 5.
    Choe DE, Olson SL, Sameroff AJ. The interplay of externalizing problems and physical and inductive discipline during childhood. Developmental Psychology. Published online 2013:2029-2039. doi:10.1037/a0032054
  6. 6.
    Schiffrin HH, Liss M, Miles-McLean H, Geary KA, Erchull MJ, Tashner T. Helping or Hovering? The Effects of Helicopter Parenting on College Students’ Well-Being. J Child Fam Stud. Published online February 9, 2013:548-557. doi:10.1007/s10826-013-9716-3
  7. 7.
    Wong E, Wiest D, Cusick L. Perceptions of autonomy support, parent attachment, competence and self-worth as predictors of motivational orientation and academic achievement: an examination of sixth- and ninth-grade regular education students. Adolescence. 2002;37(146):255-266. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12144158
  8. 8.
    Ge X, Brody GH, Conger RD, Simons RL, Murry VM. Contextual amplification of pubertal transition effects on deviant peer affiliation and externalizing behavior among African American children. Developmental Psychology. Published online 2002:42-54. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.38.1.42

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