How To Get Kids To Listen Without Losing Your Mind

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“Listen,” is the first result after typing “How do I get my kids to…” into Google (followed by “stop fighting”).

If that ain’t proof that getting kids to listen is a universal struggle, I don’t know what is.

We’re all in the same boat here: trying to get stuff done, without constantly repeating ourselves and losing our Ish (see what I did there?).

How do we get our kids to listen? Let’s better answer that by first exploring why kids don’t listen.

kids should listen more
If only it were this easy…

Why Don’t Kids Listen?

There are so many reasons kids don’t listen. Obstacles to active listening can be situational, emotional, physical, or mental.

Let’s break it down:

  • They Literally Cannot

It’s not necessarily that kids won’t pay attention; it’s that they can’t.

Listen, dear reader. There’s only so much anyone can do with a non-fully developed frontal lobe.

Ever heard of joint attention? It’s the ability to pay attention to two things at once. Joint attention is being able to listen to a podcast while preparing dinner.

Children (especially young children) simply do not have the joint attention skills to process instructions and do literally anything else.

Are they staring at some weird spot on the wall while you’re talking? Yeah, they probably aren’t hearing a thing.

  • They’re Tired

No one is at their best when tired. Drowsiness is like an intoxicant. We’ve all seen those statistics about how driving tired is comparable to driving drunk.

Little ones can’t listen attentively when they’re tired. They just can’t.

  • They Don’t Understand

Kids come into the world a blank slate. They simply don’t know how to act in a restaurant. Or a museum. Or your bosses wedding.

They may not understand why it’s ok to reach across the table at home but not at a work function.

Without exposure, practice, and clear instructions/expectations, children can’t be expected to “act right” in different settings and situations.

  • They Feel Out of Control

In the general scheme of the world, children don’t have much autonomy.

In the face of such a societal loss of control, many children savor small victories like refusing to get in the bath (or whatever it is).

I’m not saying it’s right, but I’m saying I get it.

Mom frustrated by kid not listening
It’s still frustrating tho

Is It *More* Than Not Listening?

I want be crystal clear: a lack of listening skills can indicate physical and mental, rather than behavioral, issues.

Let’s not rule out auditory/sensory processing, hearing ability, decreased proprioception input, or vestibular sense concerns.

  • It’s A Sensory Thing

Five to sixteen percent of school-aged children have some kind of sensory processing difficulty.

This difficulty is more than, “wow, outside noises are distracting.” It’s more like, “wow, outside noises cause physical pain.”

No one can listen well while experiencing discomfort. For many children with sensory processing difficulties, everyday environments are extremely stressful.

  • It’s A Hearing Thing

It may not be hearing loss, it could be a distortion of sound caused by fluid build-up, etc.

It’s always good to rule out hearing difficulties. Ask your pediatrician about auditory screenings.

  • Proprioception and Vestibular Sense

Proprioception is the ability to feel one’s body parts without looking at them (that’s how we know to duck in low doorways and can get popcorn in our mouths at the movies without looking away from the screen.)

Vestibular sense provides critical information about where one’s body is in space (this creates a sense of balance and connects all other senses).

If these areas are underdeveloped, children will be too distracted by their own bodies to do anything else, especially listen to parents and teachers.

Without adequate proprioception and vestibular sense, kids struggle with fidgeting, falling over, and being disturbed by commonplace physical sensations. It’s extremely difficult to focus, pay attention, and listen under these conditions.

Autistic boy at pediatric occupational therapy
A1 enjoying swinging at occupational therapy

Ask your pediatrician for a referral to pediatric occupational therapy to help these areas of development.

Here are some easy ways to increase proprioception input and support vestibular sense at home:

Easy Ways To Increase Proprioception Input for Young Children

  • knead play dough
  • jump on trampoline
  • carry/lift boxes
  • rake leaves
  • squeeze stress ball
  • dig in dirt
  • push/pull items (like a wagon)

Easy Ways To Support Vestibular Sense in Young Children

  • spin on a merry-go-round (and just spinning in general)
  • hang upside-down
  • walk backwards
  • wheelbarrow walk
  • rock in a rocking chair/swing
  • dance
  • hang/climb on monkey bars
Infant pushing toy vacuum to increase proprioception input
Pushing a toy vacuum increases proprioception input!

Setting Up Success

In my experience the health maxim “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” also applies to kids and listening skills.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been baffled by some outburst of temper in my young sons. My first instinct is to take it personally.

This always works out fine.

No, of course it doesn’t, soon we’re all yelling.

When that fracas is over, I inevitably realize that they’re tired, or their blood sugar is wonky, or their foot is being pinched in their shoe or something.

My sons’ behavior rarely has anything to do with me, or even with them. It’s some external, situational, or biological factor.

That means, as a parent, I try (key word) to deflect or plan around these factors as well as I can, creating an ideal listening situation.

Creating Ideal Listening Situations

Some of this stuff is so simple, I’m afraid you’re going to think I’m being sarcastic.

I’m not, swear.

I remind myself of these conditions every. day. And I’ve been parenting for five years.

This is the mental check list I go through to make an ideal listening situation:

  • When was the last time they ate and what was it (carbs, protein, or fats)?
  • Did they sleep/nap well?
  • How much movement today?
  • Is the schedule off?
  • What’s going on sensory-wise (bright lights, how many people are talking, etc)
  • How much parental attention today?
  • Am I especially tense?

While running through this checklist, I usually stumble on the problem. I’ll realize that only marshmallows have been eaten all morning, or Daddy’s been in lots of meetings, or it’s crap weather for playing outside.

This checklist gives me a jumping off point. Instead of yelling or taking it personally, I can do something. Slice up some apples to dip in peanut butter. Ask Josh to take the boys out after his meeting. Set up an indoor obstacle course.

I’m not saying this always works. But it does always make me feel better; more autonomous from the trying.

Angry kid not listening
This kid does not look ready to listen.

How To Get Kids To Listen

Oftentimes, we can’t control external situations. Or there is no way to please small irrational people. Or there’s a safety issue. Or there’s just no time to create anything, let alone an ideal listening situation.

These are the do’s and don’t of getting kids to listen.

Do:

  • Lower expectations

Nothing ever turns out as expected. That’s just the reality of throwing in small individuals that you can’t control (cuz who can you control? Only yourself!) into the mix.

Someone will nap weird, or be sick, or any other scenario you would never have previously imagined, and it will throw a wrench in your plans.

This is not to say don’t try to plan. Most of setting up ideal listening situations involves planning.

Just try to be as realistic, have back-up scenarios in mind, and actively remember that something or someone will detour from the planned route.

  • Practice AND model

We, as caregivers, have to consciously teach and model our behavioral expectations, especially in different situations.

Practice positive behaviors by talking about specific behavioral expectations, reading books about them, guide hand puppets/action figures/dolls through same behaviors, or watch videos about it.

When feeling particularly brave, I put my sons in more…high-risk listening situations. I’ll take them to our local candle and home decor outlet store, full of pretty, delicate wares, without a stroller.

The kids are free to walk around and touch things, but they have to listen and follow prompts of “gentle hands,” “don’t touch that one,” “too far away,” and so on. If they don’t follow instructions, we leave, immediately.

I know this sounds sanctimonious, but it’s a truth that hits me harder as my kids get older: my children won’t speak respectfully, share, actively listen, apologize, keep trying despite failure, use manners, clean up after themselves, laugh at themselves, or quietly entertain themselves unless they see me doing the same.

  • Use Play

Play is a great way to practice behavioral expectations. Want kids to listen more in school? Start playing school: practice lining up, raising hands, and sitting in a circle.

Play Grocery Store and Doctor and Zoom Meeting and Making A New Friend, practicing all the “steps” and societal norms in a fun way.

Singing instructions is another playful way to gain compliance. It’s a quick way to get attention without raising your voice.

  • Try physical grounding

Remember that joint attention stuff I was talking about earlier? Grounding is an easy, non-threatening way to leverage kids attention.

Prepare a child for listening with physical grounding: lightly place a hand on their shoulder, kneel to meet them at their level, and maintain eye contact.

Ever heard of couch parenting? It’s hearing that tell-tale crash from the other room and calling, “get off your brother, he’s allowed to wear his pajamas until after breakfast (is that just me??)!”

It’s not getting up, separating them, using physical grounding, clearly stating what rule was broken, placing the offender(s) in time-out, blah blah blah.

And, look, I’m as guilty of couch parenting as anyone else. We’re tired. But couch parenting is just not best practice.

Couch parenting creates a negative feedback loop. The kid(s), looking for attention, acts up. The parent reacts from the couch, not giving the originally craved interaction (remember, any attention, even negative, is better than no attention), so the kid(s) ups the ante. Repeat all afternoon.

Nip that stuff in the bud, getting off the couch and using physical grounding.

  • Acknowledge the suck

Know what is best practice? Empathizing without giving in.

Following the rules isn’t always the most fun thing to do. There’s certainly been times in my life where I’ve resented a boss’ instructions or having to pay a bill or not jaywalk.

When kneeling down with a kid, stating what rule was broken, acknowledge the suck: “I know you’re mad that your tower was knocked down, but you can’t push the baby.”

When the consequence is over, go over more acceptable ways to express anger (bonus points for acting them out!)

  • Pile on the praise

Seventy percent of discipline is praise. So when kids do listen, pile on the praise.

Reinforce developing listening skills with lots of “great listening,” “what a great choice,” “you’re such a big help,” “thank you for listening,” it’s so easy to take you [blank] because you listen so well,” etc.

party balloons
Celebrate the small victories!

Don’t:

  • Offer multiple choices

Offering a choice is great way to increase both compliance and autonomy. But the key word is “a,” singular. One choice.

The child should only be able to choose between two options: “Would you like to wear the gray or green sweatshirt?” Or: “Do you want to try your peas or carrots first?”

I’m always surprised how quickly offering a choice calms my young children down.

  • Interrupt

Man, if I was in the middle of reading my favorite book and my husband was all, “time for a bath!” and just started running the water, I’d be so mad.

And that’s how our kids feel, too.

Children appreciate time warnings and countdowns, “Five minutes until…”

We countdown to pretty much everything, count down each minute, and use a timer for the final minute. You don’t have to go that hard, it’s just that our oldest son is reeeeeaaaaallllly into it.

  • Use the interrogative case

Time for a quick grammar lesson.

There are four types of sentences: declarative (making a statement/relaying information), exclamatory (expressing a strong emotion), interrogative (asking a question), and imperative (making a command or direct instruction).

Caregivers must use the imperative or declarative, rather than interrogative case, when giving instructions.

It’s “we’ll take a bath after dinner, ok?” vs. “you’ll love playing in the bath after dinner.”

Often the interrogative case sneaks into instructions with the best of intentions. No one wants to be a dictator. But don’t confuse assertion (imperative/declarative case) with aggression (exclamatory case).

adult woman with hands over ears not listening
This won’t help either.

How To Deal With Kids Not Listening

I think the best way to deal with kids not listening is non-reactive parenting.

Non-reactive parenting is a term I’ve coined to describe reacting to children’s behavior in a strategically calm way.

Staying calm in the face of kids not listening is the best way to avoid escalation in a frustrating situation. Read more about non-reactive parenting here.

woman faking smile under stress and
It will get easier

Getting kids to listen is a universal struggle. It isn’t you. You’re not crazy. And you’re not alone.

I hope this article provides enough information to assure everyone that this struggle is “normal.”

These lovable heathens don’t have fully developed frontal lobes. Kids literally short-circuit when tired, or faced with strong emotions, or having to follow three commands.

The best we can do is to stay calm, lower expectations, trot out positive coping skills, and try our best to prepare for and fortify against, the inevitable chaos that is parenting.

Love,

megan imhoff

Megan

Megan

Megan writes everything on Ish Mom. She possesses a bachelor's degree in psychology, a flair for theatrics, and a whole lotta nerve. She lives in the Midwest (and loves it) with her wonderful husband and three young boys.
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