10 Ways to Help Children Listen Better

“My kid doesn’t listen!” This common parent complaint is filled with frustration! It’s aggravating to feel ignored. It’s hard not to take it personally…to conclude that our child doesn’t respect us. It’s also tempting to raise the volume of our requests or resort to threats.

But the answer to being heard may be to make it easier for our children to listen. Here are some ideas of how about do this:

1) Pick your moment If you want your child to put her dishes in the dishwasher, it’s easier for her to listen if you ask as soon as she stands up from the dinner table, rather than waiting until she has walked away and is relaxing on the couch. Your request that your child clean up his room is more likely to get a positive response if you don’t ask before he’s is in the middle of an exciting videogame. You also want to avoid making challenging requests when your child is tired, hungry, or emotionally distraught.

2) Have reasonable expectations Here’s a situation that comes up a lot in my practice. Parents tell me, “Every night we tell our child to get ready for bed. Then we go upstairs to check on him 45 minutes later, and she’s taken off one sock.” If this happens every night, clearly this approach to getting ready for bed isn’t working! It doesn’t matter if most kids this age can get ready for bed without supervision. It doesn’t matter if we believe children this age ought to be able to get ready for bed unsupervised. We have to deal with the child in front of us. This plan isn’t working for this child at this time. So, we need to try something else. Reasonable expectations reflect what the child is currently doing or just a bit beyond that.

3) Get their attention If you have to ask your child 14 times before she listens, then you’re training him to ignore you 13 out of 14 of your requests. Don’t just call across the room ineffectually. Walk over, make eye contact, put your hand gently on your child’s shoulder, then make your request and stand there, calmly and confidently, until your child moves in the right direction. Also be careful not to overload your child with too many instructions at once. With some children, you may need to have them repeat the instructions. “So, what is it you need to do when we get home?”

4) Focus on action Tell your child what he should do; not what he shouldn’t. If you ask a child to stop bouncing a basketball, chances are that child will bounce it three more times—not because he’s trying to be defiant, but because kids aren’t wired to stop on a dime. Redirection is easier than stopping. For instance, instead of saying, “Stop bouncing the ball,” you can tell your child, “Do five more bounces, then put the ball in the box in the garage.” When it’s time to leave the playground, instead of saying, “Time to go!”, you can tell your child, “Do your last thing, then we need to walk home.”

5) Make it fun Kids love to laugh, and you don’t have to be a great comedian to get them going. Just do something silly or unexpected. Sing a song. Talk with an accent. Pretend a sock or an oven mitt is a puppet giving the instructions. Make your request into a game. Kids-against-the-grown-up(s) contests are often fun. For example, you could ask, “Can you get in your jammies before Mommy changes out of her work clothes?”

6) Do it together It’s easier for kids to do frustrating or unpleasant tasks if they have company. This also gets around the classic kid objection: “No fair! Why do I have to do it?”

7) Use when-then statements Instead of resorting to threats, make a simple when-then statement. “When you’re done with your piano practice, then you can invite your friend over.” “When your homework is finished, then you can go play outside.” “When your toys are picked up, then we can go to the park.” This type of when-then statements shows that your child is in control of when a positive outcome occurs. You can also use when-then statements to use certain events to trigger a desired response. “When this show is over, then you need to head upstairs for a shower.” “When you finish your cereal, then you need to brush your teeth.”

8) Offer a choice No one likes to feel controlled—including children. Giving your child two different options that are equally acceptable to you, makes it easier for your child to comply. Giving more than two options tends to be overwhelming. Just ask your child some version of these questions: This or that? Now or then? Me or you?

9) Establish routines It’s easier for kids to comply when they know what to expect. You can help reinforce these routines by stating an impersonal “law of the universe,” that describes how things work in your home. “Coats belong in the closet.” “8 pm means bedtime.” These types of statements are less likely to make your child feel personally “persecuted” by your request.

10) Say please and thank you Barking a harsh order will lead to more resistance than making a polite request in a pleasant voice. Too often, we use our best manners with strangers and don’t make the effort to be kind and civil with our families. Modeling good manners also makes it more likely that your child will speak politely to you.



Preventing Mom Meltdowns and Dad Detonations

Chores and Children

What Friends Teach Children


© Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD.