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

What to Do When Your Child Refuses to Listen

As parents, a child who refuses to listen may seem like defiance. But, really it's a lack of listening skills. Here's how to handle it.

Updated October 22, 2023

by Catherine Lessman

Early Child Development Specialist

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 we’re in public, and it seems that yours are the only children not listening, it can make us feel like we 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 that they simply haven’t developed a listening skill set yet. As parents, when we are experiencing challenging behavior in our littles, like poor listening skills, it helps to understand 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.

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. This is because it feels personal and disrespectful to us as adults. However, we must shift our mindset to understand that our child has yet to develop the skills to listen appropriately. By shifting our viewpoint, we parents can focus more on how we can help them learn those skills faster instead of focusing on the skill set they lack.

They don’t understand.

Sometimes, a child who refuses to listen does not understand the boundary or message we give them. Often, our instruction is too long or complicated for little ones to comprehend. Keeping things short and sweet will help your little one develop listening skills and understand the boundaries set for them.

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). These are diagnoses that you can explore between you and your pediatrician. If you feel you have consistently tried to develop better listening skills with your child and no progress has been made, speak with your healthcare professional. More often than not, listening effectively is more about your child’s social development.

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. But in early childhood, it indicates developmental growth and is appropriate.

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. So how do we help them develop the skills to still feel independent and listen simultaneously? Here are some tips.

Helping Your Child Learn to Listen

1. 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 the child is ready to listen. This means selecting a private time with the least amount of distractions and when they are well-rested. These three factors will help ensure your little one is as focused as they can be on listening.

2. Active Listening

You may feel like a broken record, but asking your child to repeat back to you the direction you gave will help them focus and retain the boundary that you set for them. This will also let you know that they heard you and understood what you were saying. 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.

3. Give Them Choices

Often, it isn’t a lack of listening skills that is the problem, and instead, your child feels like they have no choice. So instead of listening, they choose their own path, often resulting in defiance. When we give our children an option, it empowers them. It helps them feel like they have control over the situation. It also helps them learn decision-making skills. Allow them to 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 where 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 during those instances when there is no choice.

4. Respectful “Love Taps”

The act of respectful physical touch with a child is such an essential part of their development. Unfortunately, it is often ignored or forgotten. “Love taps,” as I like to call them, are simply physically touching your little one on their head, shoulder, holding their hand, hugs, or rubbing their back. They are little touches that make them feel that you are present without saying anything at all.

All children learn differently, so we need to make sure we teach differently. When you use verbal teaching and appropriate touch, you may find you get their attention even better. I have found ten daily “love taps” to communicate respect and love will help your child feel heard and seen. As a result, they are less likely to seek negative attention by not listening.

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, make sure your expectations regarding listening behavior are clear and consistently communicated. 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. Praising your child when they display good listening skills or possibly 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. Modeling 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.

These tips may seem to be correcting 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 so much easier with these tools than expecting our children to execute a skill set that they do not yet possess. The next time you find yourself at your wit’s end with a child who refuses to listen, try these tips. I bet you’ll be surprised by the results!

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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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