How to Get Your Child to Listen
Children’s selective hearing is a big source of frustration for parents. A child who is defiant, stubbornly refuses to cooperate and ignores simple requests can make every day feel like an uphill struggle. Clinical Psychologist Dr Victoria Samuel has advice for parents who want to improve communication with their child
Before you can expect your child to listen, you need to ensure you really listen to your child.
As a parent, the pressure of the constant 101 things that need to get done can sometimes make it hard to listen. But when a child is not feeling listened to, they are more likely to whinge, shout or throw a tantrum to get your attention.
Careful listening shows that you respect your child’s feelings and gives them space to explore a problem and, often, find their own solution. Being listened to can cause difficult feelings to evaporate - cue less moaning, fewer tantrums, fewer tears. Most importantly, if you listen to your child, they are more likely to listen to you.
How to Listen
Give your full attention. Stop what you are doing, turn to your child, make eye contact and listen to what they are saying.
Acknowledge what your child is saying with a non-committal, simple “mmm”, “I see,” “oh,” “right”.
Often behind what your child is saying (or even behind how they are acting, if not yet talking) is a feeling. Identify the feeling and give it a name.
“That sounds frustrating”
“You’re disappointed that we have to leave now”
It’s crucial to accept feelings and resist the temptation to make things better by denying them (“hey, there’s no reason to be so upset”).
Diffuse difficult situations by giving your child his wishes in fantasy. Wave a wand with words!
“You’d really like it if you could stay up later”
“If only I could make that orange juice into your favourite apple juice”
How to Communicate
To get your child to listen, think carefully about exactly how you communicate. Subtle differences in words, tone and body language may affect whether your child tunes in or out.
Tone of voice
How you say something is as important, if not more important, as what you say
Use an up-beat, encouraging, positive tone as much as possible.
When indicating limits, sound definite and confident. Any hint of uncertainty and you’re more likely to be ignored, debated (But “please, can't I just...”), or guilt-tripped (“It’s soo unfair”).
To indicate disapproval, use a firmer, lower, authoritative tone, but don’t shout.
Avoid nagging. Ask once nicely, once firmly and then take action. If you typically repeat yourself several times before your take action, your child will learn to ignore your initial requests.
Communicate from close by. Don’t shout through from the next room.
Always get down to your child’s height and make eye contact. An adult towering above a child can be intimidating.
Use clear commands and keep requests brief and to the point. Limit yourself to a few important words (e.g. “8 O’clock. Bedtime”).
Avoid accusing (“you never listen!”), criticising (“you’re so lazy”), or threatening (“if you don’t hurry up, then I’ll leave without you”).
Avoid phrasing which implies that cooperation is an option!
“Shall we...?” “Could you...” gives your child a get out clause (i.e. “No!”)
Instead, make requests clear, short and specific: “Bedtime now”
How to Encourage Co-operation
For some children “no” can be the default position when asked to do things. Below are some tips to encourage your child’s cooperation.
Make a statement of fact that describes the problem rather than accusing or criticising
"There’s paint on the table"
"I can see wrappers on the floor"
"Clothes on the floor don’t dry very quickly"
"Leaving lights on wastes electricity"
Describe how you feel
"I don’t like hearing whinging"
"It bothers me when I see clothes on the floor"
Reduce resistance by offering a choice about when or how something is done
"Would you like your hair done before or after breakfast?"
"Do you want to skip to the car like a pony or bound like a dog?"
Avoid lectures, use one word
Use ‘when...then’ technique to focus your child on what needs to get done
"When you’ve brushed your teeth, then I’ll read you a story"
"As soon as your homework’s done, then you can watch TV"
Write a note
Children love receiving notes. Be creative, notes don’t just have to come from you!
“I like to be hung up. Please don’t leave me on the floor. Thank you. Your towel.”
Praise and reward cooperation
Praise all signs of cooperation with warmth and enthusiasm. Use a star chart to motivate your child for daily tasks such as getting up, brushing teeth, getting dressed
Finally, use the involvement technique to encourage helpful behaviour through positive attention.
Shared Play Technique: If you’re sick of hearing the same old squabbles between your kids, encourage a bit of teamwork with the Shared Play Technique
Involvement Technique: Getting your children involved with chores and shopping trips can make all the difference to how much they (and you!) enjoy them
Family Routine: As seen on the Supernanny show, setting up a Family Routine may help your family use time more effectively
Find out more
- This article draws on some of the strategies outlined in the useful book: How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Faber & Mazlish.
- Dr Victoria Samuel is founder of the Bristol Psychology Services