How To Get Children To Listen

The parents of four-year-old Brandon are struggling. He doesn’t follow the rules, is uncooperative and distractible. Their main complaint is that Brandon doesn’t listen.


During the day, Brandon’s mom, who is at home with him and his 9-month-old sister, is exhausted. She can’t seem to get Brandon to do anything that he doesn’t want to do. When she threatens to “call dad” or put Brandon in time-out, he laughs. Some days it is just easier to let Brandon do what he wants.

At the family dinner table, Brandon won’t sit at the table for more than minutes at a time. Bedtime is a disaster. He wants to do one more thing rather than go to bed. Dad just has to get tough with him to get Brandon to listen.

“Why can’t you just listen?” reflects the frustration and resonates the sense of failure for the parents and for the child.

The challenge of getting children to listen is a common one for parents and teachers alike. Parenting and teaching would be so much easier if children just did what we wanted. But, do we mean what we say?

Of course, you may respond. But as parents and teachers do we always say what we mean?

Take a few minutes to think about a time when a child did not listen. Did you stick with the same words and intention? For example, if after asking for a child to pick up his toys without response, did you pick up all of the toys? Or did you threaten that the child would never get another toy or that Santa was watching and would not bring any more toys?

While threats or completing tasks for the child may be have short-term efficiencies, it may not help the child develop the skills you want to promote or benefit your relationship.

If our words aren’t consistent or don’t convey our intentions, how would the child know what is true? Or, if sarcastically we say, “Fine, I don’t want you to help.” We may convey underlying anger that is confusing and is missing our true intent.

In the most regretful moments, we may say things or do things in fits of rage, that later we tell our children we didn’t mean to say. Or we may try and help a child with a social problem by saying, “I don’t think he really means what he said.” It is confusing for children to figure out what we do and don’t mean.

It is easier for children to listen when we are consistent and reliable in our actions and words. Matching our words with identifiable feelings also helps children build knowledge and trust.

Photo by Andrew Branch | Unsplash

So when a child has difficulty “listening” here are a few things to check out:

  1. Is it easy for the child’s body to listen? Physically and mentally can the child hear and process the language? Repeated ear infections can impact hearing loss. Sometimes children have undetected speech and language difficulties.
  • Vary the volume and location of sound. Can the child hear a whisper or small sound that occurs behind his head, outside, or from another room?
  • Can the child follow a three-step direction? By age four, can he hold 3 simple steps in memory?
  • How does the child express thoughts, feelings and ideas?
  • Make note of how many words the child uses to express a sentence or idea.
  1. Check the simplicity and clarity of your adult language. In a highly verbal environment, too many words can be distracting to young children.
  • Speak directly to the child. This way the child is clear that you are talking to him.
  • Short sentences with pauses can maintain attention. Try using sentences that contain no more than 2 or 3 words greater than what the child uses. For example, if the child uses 3-word sentences, “I want car.” The adult responds, “You want the blue car.”
  • Use first-then statements that are short and clear. “First car in basket, then outside.”
  • Simplify directions.
  1. Is it easy for the child to know which words are important? From an adult’s perspective, this may seem like a silly question. But intention, feelings and words need to match. Otherwise, children may feel confused and uncertain. These feelings can undermine the relationship and lead to equally confusing responses from the child, like laughing when the parent is mad.
  • Connect your words with your intentions to build trust and security.
  • Have consequences that are developmentally appropriate and happen as soon as possible. “First two toys in basket, then park.”
  • Rather than using sarcasm or threatening unintended consequences, model how to communicate negative feelings. “My body is frustrated when you don’t put two toys away.”

In our children’s best interests, we want them to know that we, as teachers and parents, mean what we say. When our words and intentions match, we build trust, security, and empathy with each other. By being consistent, responsive, sensitive adults, we can help children develop empathy for their community members and build a prosperous society.




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Tranforming our understanding of wellbeing by seeing from the child's point of view.

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