Have you tried everything you could think of and your kids still won’t listen?
Listening isn’t a singular task for children. Listening is actually a string of executive functioning skills that are all working together to produce the outcome of what we call “listening.” The hard truth is that no amount of bribes, threats, shame, or external motivation of any kind is going to get your child to listen if they have weak self-regulation and executive functioning skills. It’s just not possible.
Listening starts with us, the parents. We have the ability to build up our children’s self-regulation and executive functioning skills. How we interact with them makes a huge difference. It can either build those skills up, or it can undermine those skills.
Most parents fire off orders in their child’s direction, and then when the child doesn’t immediately comply, we repeat it louder. If we still don’t get compliance, we often will yell or start getting really condescending.
How many people are guilty of saying something like: “Pick. Up. Your. Plate. Walk. To. The Kitchen. And. Put. It. On. The. Counter. IS THAT SO HARD?!”
Take a step back, what was that last thing you did? Where you were a real meanie and spoke to them like they were an idiot. That’s actually what they need, minus the attitude. Children simply need to have instructions broken down for them.
When we just walk in and start barking orders and expecting them to jump the second we command it, we’re undermining their executive skills. We’re creating stress. We aren’t valuing and respecting what they were already doing, what they were engaged in.
With adults we’ll say, “Hey!” or “Can I have a minute?” and then wait for their attention. We’re much more respectful of people’s need to shift their attention because we respect that they’re already engaged. But we don’t value that engagement with our kids.
So what do we need to do instead?
1. We need to give them some warning.
We need to ask for our child’s attention and actually wait for it! It’s not “Hey, please put your shoes away.” It’s “Hey. *WAIT TILL THEY LOOK AT YOU* please put your shoes away.” Asking for their attention will make a huge difference in your child’s “listening skills.” But it’s not because it makes them a better listener, it’s because it gives them a chance to shift their attention. If your child listening improves with this technique, that’s a red flag that your child’s flexible thinking skills are on the weaker end of the spectrum and could use some support developing.
2. Break your instructions down (without the attitude).
Often we tell children, “go clean up the playroom.” and then get upset when they stare at us with bewilderment. Because “Go clean up the playroom” is too general of an ask for a young child.
So, break it down: Please go put all the lego in the blue bin. Put all the dolls back in the dollhouse. Next, you need to put all the food back in the kitchen. etc etc.
If your child’s listening improves with this technique – it’s a sign that they have some weak executive skills that could use some improvement.
Grab the scripts for crazy-making behaviour and know exactly what to say next time your toddler, preschooler, or kindergartener isn't listening.
3. Make it meaningful.
We often ask kids to do something and they haven’t got a clue why they’re doing it. This is not a habit you want to cultivate, as it breeds blind obedience. We don’t want our kids to blindly do any task anyone asks of them. We want them to think about why they’re doing it and if it’s a good idea. When we connect a task to a real-life concern for our children, they’re much more likely to do it.
So tell them! “I need you to clean up the playroom so that it’s clean for when your cousins get here.” “Your shoes need to be by the front door so that we can easily find them when we need to go to school.”
4. We need to make sure they’re regulated.
If we ask our children to do something and they whine or they get irrational on us like saying they don’t know how to do it, recognize this means they’re stressed. They’re low on energy. What you’ve asked them to do is going to require more energy than they have to give right now. We’ve talked before how yelling overrides this, but it’s a weapon you want to use very selectively because otherwise they never learn other more adaptive ways of gaining more energy, they just rely on their emergency energy sources, which ends up with chronic toxic stress.
This might mean that you pause your task for a few minutes and do something with them that fills their tank, gives them a bit of energy, and then ask again. If your child’s listening improves when you do this, it’s a sign that your child could benefit from some work on their self-regulation skills.
Give these techniques a try!
Keep in mind, these strategies aren’t going to fix your problems. You aren’t going to start asking for your child’s attention and have them magically start listening all the time. These strategies are like a dowsing rod; they help point us in the direction of the problem that needs fixing. If we don’t fix that underlying problem, the issue is never going to get resolved and may also escalate!
In ParentAbility we have some more ways to hone in on what skills and stressors your child is struggling with specifically, and then we create a plan that’s custom to your child to build those skills up and improve their behaviour.
If you’d like to learn more about that, the very first step is to watch my free class: How to Raise Well-Behaved Kids Without Yelling, Shaming, or Time-Outs.