Focus & Following Directions

“Why Don’t You Listen?” How to Stop Nagging and Start Communicating

Your child may be ignoring your requests for very good reasons. Instead of insisting on compliance and obedience, find out the source of their resistance by engaging in teachable moments.

“My son just doesn’t listen to me.”
“My daughter snaps back when I ask her to do something.”
“Why doesn’t he show me a little respect?”

I hear comments like these all the time from parents who hope for compliance and insist on respectful behavior. But when a child has ADHD, poor emotional regulation and organization skills complicate behaviors and expectations.

Generally, we want our children to learn to be helpful, independent, and competent. Our expectations are based on our adult views, and, in our view, the best interests of all involved. However, the present is often all that matters to kids, and they are not aware of how they affect others by pursuing their own wants and desires.

This is where the teaching should start. When we focus on respectful compliance, we miss opportunities to teach important lessons. Sometimes following the rules is actually essential — when it involves your child’s health and safety. Other times bring opportunities to engage our children to talk about their feelings. Such talks help us understand why they are not responding as we want them to and learn how to communicate more effectively.

How to Get Kids to Listen: 5 Strategies for Parents

1. Consider Your Child’s Point of View

Your child may have a good reason (in their mind) to resist your requests and orders. With very young children, it is more valuable to understand what is driving their resistance. The reason may seem obvious (“I don’t want to stop having fun to do what you want”), but let them express their feelings and concerns. Problem-solving will calm the situation better than insisting on compliance. It may also help prevent the pattern of behavior from recurring in the future.

[Click to Read: A Parent’s Secret Weapon for Better Listening with Less Nagging]

One of my clients has a son who gets angry when it is time to leave a friend’s house after a play date. I encouraged her to sit down with him and calmly talk about the afternoon. She mentioned to her son that he seems to have an especially hard time leaving Sam’s house when they play and asked what was so different about leaving Sam’s house. She eventually learned that Sam’s building set had characters that his did not. Mom was then able to sort out the frustrating problem – they found that they could create similar characters out of ones he already had.

More important, they talked about what her son can do when he is frustrated that would help him solve his problems moving forward. Telling Mom why he is upset, instead of fighting with her, sounded like a better idea.

2. Scaffold Key Behaviors

Empathize with your child’s frustration, and then help him solve the problem at hand. Maybe your child is playing a video game and is very involved in the action. They know that you are waiting to leave, but they can’t disengage from the game and need your help to find a stopping point.

Most parents would just say, “You have five more minutes.” This is not good enough. Even if the child can imagine the passing of five minutes, they will need your help choosing a place to stop that will fit within the five minutes. Parents should join their child at the game to help them choose a logical place to stop — maybe after a feature is built or a character reaches a certain place. Help them learn to anticipate and plan as best as they can.

[10 Behavior Chart Rewards to Motivate Your Child]

3. Be the Example

Let your child see how you deal with your own frustration. Talk about something you didn’t want to do (like three loads of laundry after a day of work) and how you still managed to do it without complaining. Your children watch you – they will learn more from seeing you manage situations than from lectures on proper behavior.

4. Know When to Ignore Attitudes

Don’t take your child’s “bad” behavior as disrespect all the time. Younger children get frustrated at what they are told to do, and they take it out on the person asking them to do it. They hate putting away a toy when they would rather play with it, or turning off the TV to get ready for a bath.

Sometimes it’s best to ignore your child’s attitude and keep your attention on the task at hand. Our heightened emotions can feed off one another. The battle can become a distraction that allows him to succeed in avoiding what he wanted to avoid in the first place. If you are focusing on his attitude, he is still doing what he wanted to be doing.

5. Let the Storm Pass

It’s best to wait until things are calm to teach your child. When we step back, we can see the patterns of behavior that contribute to our frustration. When parents tell me, “She always…” or “He never…,” it is time to address the repeated challenge (getting out of the bath when asked, clearing the dishes after a meal). Often, the “teachable moment” comes when the problem is not actively occurring.

As your child matures and gains emotional insights about their behaviors, you can expect more appropriate compliance. The challenge for parents is to remain patient as you help your child get in the habit of being respectful.

How to Get Kids to Listen: Next Steps


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Updated on November 23, 2020

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