Why Won’t My Child Listen to Me?

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If there ever was a perennial parental complaint, I’d have to say it is “why won’t my child listen to me?” When you know some of the most common reasons why your little one is ignoring or defying you, you have a better chance of being heard and getting what you want.

Accentuate the Positive

Hang around a grocery store or shopping mall for any length of time and you’ll observe a wide range of parent-child interactions. Many are placid, others involve parents suffering in silence as the kids misbehave. But those won’t be the ones you remember. No, the memorable encounters will be the ones where mom or dad is screaming at the top of her or his lungs at a terrified, cowering kid. That’s the moment when I really start to believe in mirror neurons, because I too feel the fear and helplessness of the child.

I have a pet theory that every young person has a fixed number of parental screaming fits they’re willing to endure before they completely and totally tune out adult influence. Sometimes I imagine a car odometer inside the head, slowly counting backward to zero. And when that happens, the stereotypical sulky teenager emerges, looking at the ground as he or she suffers another in the long series of adult lectures, responding only with the ubiquitous “whatever.”

Communication experts are wont to say that you should have five positive interactions for every one negative interaction. Another rule of thumb states that you should “sandwich” criticism between two positive statements. These mechanical guidelines are fine as far as they go, yet they miss the deeper issue. There’s really no motivation to listen to anyone who despises you. And there’s little better indication: if you’re being yelled at most of the time, then you are despised. Rather than counting positive and negative interactions, I’d recommend parents reconnecting with how they really feel about their children, and supposing it’s a positive feeling, doing whatever it takes to make their words and tone mirror that feeling. Then there will be no need to rely on mechanical devices.

Tick-Tock!

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When parents bellow at their children, they later say “I lost patience with them.” This is an apt statement. When the mood is calm, “brush your teeth” may have the implicit time limit of “before you go to bed.” However, as the request is repeated more and more often, as the tone of voice becomes more caustic, this deadline sneaks backward, usually towards “this very instant.” Then even doing the task right now is not good enough. Time pressure upsets kids and parents alike. If the goal is to get your kids to listen, designing a schedule to allow enough time to be calm and allow for imperfections is a step in the right direction.

Unable to Comply

Parents aren’t always sure why kids won’t do what they’re told. I find that kids often “disobey” when they’re unable or unsure how to do what they’re asked. As an adult, it is hard to remember how difficult everyday rituals were when we were smaller. To a child “clean your room” may sound more like “rebuild our car’s transmission” sounds to a grownup. Understanding what children of different ages and developmental stages can reasonably do is a good start towards making do-able requests. Better yet, do the chore with your child for the first few times through. This way you’ll be able to see what they can and can’t do as well as how long it might reasonably take. They will also learn the steps involved and what you might expect as a finished product.

Be on the lookout for cognitive as well as physical limitations. Healthy, “normal” children without a whiff of ADHD still have limited attention spans, so expecting them to clean for an hour straight may be physically possible, but unrealistic in the level of attention it requires. Similarly, if you expect a chore to be done a very specific way, or highly precisely, be sure your child can actually deliver before putting them on the hook for this feat. Having high expectations for our kids is a great way to help them grow and develop, yet the margin between high standards (promoting a sense of maturity and accomplishment) and unreachable standards (leading to hopelessness and helplessness) is thin and moving all the time.

Mean What You Say

In the heat of an argument, it’s common to threaten dire consequences against a child. Later, when cooler heads prevail, the consequences never materialize. My point is not that you need to follow through on consequences decided in haste, but for parents to discipline themselves not to threaten in the first place. The net effect of empty threats is that children quickly (and rightly) learn to discount what we say in anger.

Listen to Be Heard

Our children our a reflection of ourselves. When I observe my son, I see many of my own habits, tendencies and foibles reflected back at me. If we want our children to listen, it makes sense we should model this behavior by listening to them.

So much of what children say could be classified as “back talk.” Certainly kids do try (and succeed) at manipulating parents, saying whatever they can to get what they want or get out of doing chores. Hiding amid this objectionable behavior may be legitimate requests or renegotiations. “Can I do it later?” or “I’m not feeling well” or “I can’t” may fall into either of the previous categories, but we won’t know unless we listen to all of it and sort it through carefully.

Make no mistake: listening to our kids doesn’t require our agreement with what they say, nor does it mean giving in to manipulation. All that’s necessary is for us to listen, let them know we’ve heard them and thought about what they’ve said, then stood our ground on what we expect from them (supposing that makes sense given what we know). When we listen, we can not only make affordances when they’re called for, but also call out bad behavior, manipulation and disrespect. Parents can’t control whether their children like what they say, but they can let kids know that they’re being heard.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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