- When we say that our child "doesn’t listen," we really mean that they are disobeying us.
- There are lots of reasons why a child "doesn’t listen," and most have nothing to do with disobedience.
- When we can understand a child’s unmet need, they should be much more willing to collaborate with us.
Have you ever thrown up your hands and said (or screamed): "Why doesn’t my child listen to me?”
We all want our children to pay attention and respond when their safety is at stake. But most of our struggles are not life-and-death situations. And while we want collaboration, we really don’t want compliance. Compliance leads to poor boundary-setting in relationships and even a greater potential for abuse.
When we’re trying to use respectful parenting tools, we want to support our child’s autonomy—but we still have to get out the door in the morning. (And that's only one reason respectful parenting is so hard!)
How are we supposed to do both of those things when it seems like our child is ignoring or even disrespecting us?
There are 13 common reasons why our kids don’t listen. When we understand which is the reason(s) that our child isn’t listening at a given moment, we can do something about it. Then, instead of us dragging them along kicking and screaming, they’ll want to collaborate with us.
1. Your Child Feels Disconnected. A strong parent–child relationship is key for inspiring collaboration. Try spending 10 minutes of uninterrupted one-on-one time with your child every day for a week doing an activity of their choice and see what changes.
2. Your Child Doesn't Want to Stop What They're Doing. Do you ever find yourself engrossed in an activity you enjoy and don’t want to stop or even be interrupted? Your child does, too. Plan to offer activities that are easier to transition out of when you don’t have a lot of time, and try not to interrupt them when they’re in flow. (If you wish you could have more time to yourself, not interrupting their play is really going to help you!)
3. Your Child Didn't Hear You. When children are busy, it can be challenging for them to hear us. To improve communication, wait for a break in your child’s activity. Ensure you have their full attention. Making eye contact helps establish a connection and improves their ability to hear and understand you.
4. Your Child Doesn't Have a Complete Grasp of Time. Young children often struggle to understand the concept of time. Use visual timers that provide a clear representation of how much time they have left. Don’t say, “I’ll be there in a minute” if you really mean five minutes. This will help them manage their activities more effectively.
5. Your Child Doesn't Want to Do the Task. Their resistance may stem from reasons we don’t understand. Ask why they don’t want to do the task and find ways to make the task more acceptable. Is there a way we could not do this task, or that they could do another task instead?
6. Your Child Can't Remember Multiple Instructions. Even if you assign the same tasks every day, young children struggle to remember many instructions given at once. Break down tasks into simple, one-step instructions. Add more instructions on a day when you aren’t rushed to support their developing capabilities.
7. Your Child Wants to Do a Favored Activity Instead. Children's interests shape their motivation for activities. Integrate their favorite activities into routines to balance preferences and tasks. If they love cartoons, say, "Let's brush our teeth now so we can enjoy five minutes of cartoons before we leave."
There’s a subtle but important difference between “If…then” and “When…then,” if we use it sparingly. The former rewards "good behavior." The latter has us working on the same team. (If we're using this tool a lot, there are other issues on this list to consider.)
8. Your Child Has Been Conditioned to Wait Until You Yell. Asking again and resorting to yelling only reinforces unwanted behavior. Make clear and concise requests without excessive repetition. If your child ignores you until you raise your voice, consider which of the other reasons in this list apply to your situation.
9. Your Child Doesn't Like Being Reminded. Repeating the same phrases can become tiresome for both you and your child. Instead of saying, "Pick up your shoes, please. Pick up your shoes. Put your shoes away,” try saying what you see: "I see shoes on the floor!” Or make a visual chart of their activities. But this will only "work" if they "aren’t listening" because they can’t remember what you ask.
10. Your Child Feels Judged by Your Language and Repeated Requests. Using judgmental language can lead to resistance in children because they sense that our words are meant to shame them (even if we don’t intend to do this). Instead of criticizing and giving ultimatums like, "Clean up this messy room or we won't go to the party," try: "I notice there are toys on the floor. Can we work together to clean it up?" This approach fosters cooperation and connection.
11. You Don't Listen to Your Child, So Your Child Doesn't Want to Listen to You. Effective communication is a two-way street. Take the time to actively listen to your child. When children feel heard and valued, they are more likely to reciprocate and listen to you.
12. You and Your Child Don't Understand Each Other's Needs. Your child is probably doing the thing you don’t want them to do because it meets a need they have. Their need is not to jump on the couch; their needs are for joy and play and movement. If the couch is fragile, could they jump on a bed or a trampoline, or run around outside?
13. Your Child Has a Need for More Autonomy. Autonomy is one of the most common needs children try to express through "not listening." They want to have a say over things that they find to be important in their lives. Once they have that, they’re often much more likely to collaborate with you.
As a bonus, here's another insight to consider...:
14. The Child Refuses to Do What You Ask. When your child feels disconnected, they may refuse to follow your instructions. Model graciousness by saying, "I'm happy to pick up your shoes for you today. In our family, we all help each other out, so I'd appreciate your help with it tomorrow."
If this happens often, add another step. Later, when they ask for your help, remind them of the importance of mutual support. Say, in a warm, nonthreatening tone, "When we all help each other out, it makes our family run more smoothly. You didn't want to put your shoes away, and now you're asking me for help. I'm happy to help you this time, and next time I'd appreciate your help when I ask for it."
Understanding why your child doesn't listen is crucial because then you can address the underlying reason instead of the disliked behavior. By implementing practical strategies that promote respect, active listening, and autonomy, you can create a more cooperative, respect-based relationship with your child.
Embrace the opportunity to learn and grow alongside your child. Celebrate the small victories and navigate setbacks with patience. You may still find yourself having a big reaction after your child "doesn't listen." It’s part of the process! As you incorporate these ideas, you may find yourself feeling at the end of your rope a little less often.
Then you’ll be on your way to creating a relationship that’s in much greater alignment with your values.
Can’t remember all 13+ reasons? Need a printable cheat sheet to stick on the fridge? Download your free cheat sheet here.
Not sure what your child’s most common needs are? Take this 10-question quiz to find out.
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