What To Do When Your Child Refuses To Listen - Baby Chick
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What To Do When Your Child Refuses To Listen

Explore potential reasons why your child refuses to listen and what to about it, including tips for helping your child learn to listen.

Updated April 19, 2024

by Catherine Lessman

Early Child Development Specialist

Additional contribution by Rachel Tomlinson

Registered Psychologist
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One of the most frustrating things for a parent is dealing with a child who refuses to listen. Maybe they are flat-out ignoring you. And when you’re in public, it seems your children are the only children not listening, making you feel like you are doing it all wrong.

The thing is, you are not doing it wrong. There are several reasons why children don’t listen. One of the biggest reasons is they simply haven’t developed a listening skill set yet.7 As parents, when we experience challenging behavior in our littles, like poor listening skills, it’s helpful to recognize the reasons behind their inability to listen. Understanding the root of the problem allows us to find strategies that will help build better listening skills with our children in time.

What Are the Skills Required for Listening?

Before we explore some reasons for children not listening, it’s important to understand the skills required for them to hear what you’re saying and make use of that information. With this knowledge, you might see not only how hard listening is but also that it’s a skill that develops over time.

Here are the skills children need in order to listen:7

  • Hearing – Children have to actually use their ears to hear the sounds. This is automatic, but we need to be aware that some children experience hearing loss or have difficulty transmitting the noise from the ear to the part of the brain that makes sense of the noise.
  • Listening – This refers to your child being able to focus when someone is talking, including ignoring all the background noise and being able to pick out the important parts of a sentence.
  • Remembering – After they’ve figured out all the important bits, they need to understand what is being discussed or asked of them. Basically, they need to remember and make sense of all the pieces of conversation.
  • Responding – Finally, your child has to take this information and do something with it, i.e., form a response.

Why Your Child Refuses To Listen and What To Do About It

As parents, we often view a child’s refusal to listen as a sign of disrespect because it feels personal. However, we must shift our mindset to understand that our child has yet to develop the skills to listen appropriately. This allows us to focus on how to help them learn those skills faster instead of focusing on the skill set they lack. Here are a few reasons why your child might not listen:

They Don’t Understand

Sometimes, a child who refuses to listen does not understand the boundary or message we’ve given them. Our instruction is often too long or complicated for little ones to comprehend (think about all the steps they need to learn before they can easily make sense of noise/speech). Keeping things short and sweet will help your child develop listening skills and understand the boundaries set for them.

They Are Wired To Test Boundaries

Starting in early toddlerhood, a child refuses to listen to test boundaries. This behavior, although negative, is attention-seeking. It allows them to push the boundaries to see how far they can go while promoting interpersonal independence. From the outside, it may seem defiant. However, in early childhood, it indicates developmental growth and is appropriate.2 Knowing that our child’s inability to listen is likely developmental can still upset parents. We feel that our child knows the boundaries, hears us, and chooses not to listen.

They Have a Condition

Other times, failing to listen or not focusing can signify a deeper matter, such as an auditory processing delay, hearing loss, or Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD).3 These are diagnoses that you and your pediatrician can explore together. If you have consistently tried to develop better listening skills with your child and they’ve made no progress, speak with your healthcare professional. More often than not, listening effectively is more about your child’s social development.

Helping Your Child Learn To Listen

So, how do we help our children develop the skills to still feel independent and listen simultaneously? Here are some tips for teaching them to listen:

1. Consider Your Timing

As parents, we often want to talk and be listened to immediately when teaching something. It is more helpful to make sure that you, as the parent, choose a time when your child is ready to listen. This means selecting a private time when they have the least amount of distractions and are well-rested. These factors will help ensure that your little one is as focused as possible on listening.

2. Make Eye Contact

Similar to the point above, it’s important to make sure that when we talk, we know our children are listening. So, get down on their level and make eye contact with them (to know you have their attention). Then, speak to your little one in a gentle tone.4

3. Use Active Listening

You may feel like a broken record, but asking your child to repeat back the direction you gave will help them focus and retain the boundary you set for them. This will also let you know they heard and understood what you said. Repeating a phrase or lesson is part of a technique called active listening.1 This is when an instruction is necessary enough to be reinforced by repetition. Eventually, this skill will become second nature to your child.

4. Give Them Choices

Often, the problem isn’t a lack of listening skills; instead, your child feels like they have no choice. Rather than listening, they choose their own path, often resulting in defiance.5 Giving our children an option empowers them and helps them feel like they have control over the situation. It also allows them to learn decision-making skills. So, let them participate in a choice that impacts their day instead of just following instructions.

Of course, there are times and situations in a child’s day when choices are not an option. However, I always encourage parents to offer choices if there is an appropriate time to do so. This will help with listening and compliance in instances when there is no choice.

5. Always Be “PC”

Children learn best when the teachings and messages they receive are positive and consistent. As an early childhood developmental specialist, my mantra is, “Be PC! Positive and consistent.” That phrase remains so true to this developmental milestone as well. Learning this skill (listening) takes time, patience, and consistency.

First, ensure your expectations regarding listening behavior are clear and consistently communicated.5 That way, your child will always know what is expected and work toward becoming a more active listener.

Reinforcing this positive behavior of listening is just as important.6 Praising your child when they display good listening skills or using a reward system to encourage good listening are great tools to promote such behavior. Giving an incentive for good listening is not bribing. Instead, it rewards a new developmental skill that they strive to achieve.

6. Model Good Communication Skills

When children see adults communicating effectively and actively listening, it encourages this behavior in them. Showing them that you make time to listen to them will make it easier for them to model that behavior to you and be a better listener.

These tips may seem to correct our parenting instead of correcting our child who refuses to listen. And that’s not wrong! As previously stated, a child’s inability to listen is not necessarily defiance. More often than not, it is a developmental milestone not yet achieved. Teaching them how to listen is much easier with these tools than expecting our children to execute a skill set they do not yet possess. Try these tips the next time you find yourself at your wit’s end with a child who refuses to listen. I bet the results will surprise you!

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Catherine Lessman Early Child Development Specialist
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Catherine Lessman, aka Miss Catherine, is an Early Child Development Specialist and mom who takes an individualized approach in helping your child and family unit successfully achieve success in all… Read more

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