We’ve all said it. We’ve all heard it (oh, the irony!) We’ve all thought it. It’s one of the most common complaints brought to professionals who support parents through challenges.
They won’t listen! How do I get them to listen?
The good news is that the answer to this seemingly perplexing and persistent pattern is not a difficult one. The bad news is that (as usual) the solution is on us. The reason that most parents don’t make progress in this arena is that we see this as something that resides in our children that we need to fix, and in the meantime (until our child changes) we just keep on doing the same thing we’ve always done–the thing that has never worked–and we imagine that one of these days it will work (you know what they say about doing something over and over again and expecting different results.)
Nope. That’s not how it works. So what’s going on?
Well, first and foremost, we need to talk about language (don’t we always?) About 99% of the time, when we say they’re not listening, we’re not being honest with ourselves. We use “listening” as a euphemism. (Note: If you suspect that they are physically incapable of ‘listening”, that they consistently and persistently do not hear or process what anyone is saying to them, including their friends, then of course it is worth your while to have their hearing tested.)
If we’re honest, we don’t actually know if they are listening or not. They may be. They may not be. Since we can’t get inside their head to know what they are processing, that’s something only our children know. When we say “they’re not listening”, what we most often mean is that they aren’t doing what we want them to do, or that they don’t immediately interrupt whatever they are doing or thinking about or saying or feeling to shift their attention entirely to us and what we are saying. And of course that’s not all we want. We don’t just want them to “listen.” We want them to also interrupt whatever they are doing or thinking about or saying or feeling and relatively immediately act on whatever we are saying since–admit it–what we are usually saying is a request or a reminder or a demand.
So the first step is to be intellectually honest, so that, at the very least, we can hear ourselves say out loud what we really mean. Stop saying “they aren’t listening” and start saying “they aren’t obeying” or “they aren’t treating me like an authority” or “they aren’t doing what I say” or “they don’t see what I’m saying as more important than whatever they are doing” (is it?). Because, face it, those are the real questions–not whether a child is “listening” or not.
Once you’ve got that accountability taken care off, you can move on to the next step in solving this problem, by exploring these questions:
- What are you saying when your child is “not listening to you?” Is it “coincidentally” when you are asking or telling them to do something? To that, I recommend an exercise. Get a small pad of paper or a piece of loose paper and a pen. Stick them in your pocket. For the next two days, write down (or make a tally mark) every time your child experiences an adult telling or asking them something that they want them to do. At the end of the day, look at the number, and ask yourself how you would feel about your life if people were asking or telling you (or hounding you) to do that many things that often all day every day? That’s a good starting place on the road to the compassion and lens shift that you need to address this issue.
- How well and how often do you listen to them? When they come into your room or they come in the kitchen while you’re cooking or they want to show you something they built or they call “Mom! Come see this game!” or they ask you to do something, do you respond promptly and with connection and focus? How often are you multitasking, saying “I’m listening”, while looking at your phone or computer? What are you modeling for them about what “listening” to another person’s requests and needs looks like? How are your active/reflective listening skills so that your children know and feel what it is like when someone listens deeply? Remember, children model themselves after us.
- How are you getting their attention when you speak to them? Are you getting down on their level? What is your tone? Are you waiting for a good stopping point in what they’re doing so they are freer to listen? Are you speaking from across a room or above them, or are you getting down on their level? Are you connecting with them about what they are doing and joining with them before you make external demands? Are you connecting with them physically, even if it is just a gentle hand on a shoulder?
- Are you asking questions rather than confidently letting them know what needs to be done, i.e. “Ready to get your clothes on?” or “Could you speak in a softer voice?” rather than “Hey buddy, when you finish that page, it’s going to be time to get dressed–I’ll help if you want.” or “That’s a bit loud for me. Please take that game outside or keep your voice a bit softer.”
- How are your boundaries? Do you move ahead with confident momentum after the first or second reminder, helping your child get the task done or doing it yourself if need be? Or do you allow it to remain undone and then ask again and again, communicating to children that this isn’t really a serious request, but something they can just ignore because it will come around again? How is your calm follow-through when you hold limits or boundaries? What are you teaching your child about whether or not to take you seriously?
Yeah, it’s a lot. And yet, the confusion and questions remain, right?
“I have to ask them SO many times to get them to do anything”
Actually, no, you don’t have to ask your child many times to do anything. You may choose to do that (not a choice I’d make, but whatever floats your boat), but you don’t have to. Usually when people say this, they’re frustrated and tired of asking kids many times to do things, which does make me wonder why they’re doing it. Why choose something that is so consistently frustrating, especially when there are other options? So what are those other options, you ask? Oh, so many: You could do it yourself. You could help them do it. You could decide they don’t need to do it. You could wait and let them do it on their own time and in their own way whenever it occurs to them or is important to them. You could acknowledge that your need to get this done is your need and not your child’s need, which means that you do it to meet your own need. You could find another way to get it done. You could problem solve with your kid and figure out what is getting in the way of them doing it so that you could help them with whatever skills or strategies they are struggling with. You could meditate on your own need to be in control and to manage things, so that if there are unaddressed issues there, you could be more mindful about how to take those issues on. You could notice whether you are interrupting your child when you are asking them to do things and try to change how you approach them. You could focus on connecting before trying to speak to a child, including waiting until they are ready. You could let go of the whole thing. I could go on. You get the idea. To cut to the chase: don’t ask your child many times. It’s annoying to you and to them, and they’re telling you clearly that it doesn’t work. It’s like that old adage about teaching a pig to sing. Let go. Give everyone a break.
But I’m just asking them to do the regular stuff that has to get done! You know, like getting dressed or carrying their dishes to the sink or that it’s time to go to bed! It’s not like I’m making ridiculous demands, just little things that have to get done every day!
I understand. These are things that are important to adults. They are not things that are important to children. We regard them as “little things”–our children do not see it that way. If you want your children to “listen to you”, you need to understand where and who they are, and how they move through the world. Kids don’t care about getting dressed. They’d happily stay in their pajamas–or naked–all day long. If it is our need that they get dressed, then we help them get dressed, or if we have to leave, we throw the clothes in a bag and take them along in the car, and they can put them on in the car (or we can help them do that) when we get to wherever we are going. Or they can go in the store in pajamas. Or maybe the going out isn’t even necessary, and the kids (and maybe you) would like a day in. And of course, it’s wise to remember that children’s resistance to doing tasks like this is almost always related to feeling disconnected and alone, so sometimes, they just want to feel babied and taken care of. So we do it for them, if that’s what they’d like. Sure, it takes time and energy. That’s how parenting works.
I don’t think it’s an unrealistic expectation for children to get themselves dressed and toileted and ready to go for school. I shouldn’t have to do that for them at this age.
Ah, this is one of the most intriguing fallacies. Remember, children do well when they can. And with this, I offer you a magic tool for gauging whether an expectation is “realistic” or “reasonable.” Ready? It’s a secret, and a little mindblowing, so you have to be ready. You might want to sit down. Okay? Here it is: If they can do it or if they do it, then it’s a reasonable or realistic expectation. If they can’t or don’t do it, then it’s not a reasonable or realistic expectation. Simple, right? It’s failsafe, and it’s true! If they don’t get dressed by the time they leave for school, then it’s not a realistic expectation. Are they capable? Sure, maybe (depending on their age). But maybe they need more time, maybe they need more connection, maybe they need more support, maybe they need time to play, maybe they need time to wake up, maybe they need something to eat, maybe they need more autonomy, maybe they are having trouble at school and they don’t want to go so they don’t want to get dressed to go, maybe they’re resistant because they’re tired of adults telling them what to do. Again, I could go on, but I’ll spare you. There are so many underlying reasons why a child who is sometimes physically capable of getting themselves dressed doesn’t do it on a given day. THAT is the issue to be addressed, not why they “aren’t listening.” When that need is met, they will be able to get themselves dressed. Get curious, not judgmental.
I get it that they want time to play and eat slowly and take their time getting dressed in the morning. But we just don’t have time for that, we’re rushing around all morning and I have to get ready for work myself, I can’t do everything!
For sure, you can’t do everything. None of us can. And it’s still helpful to know that rushing is the arch enemy of children. We can’t create more hours in a day, but we can streamline things whenever we can. We can sometimes get kids to bed earlier at night so they can get up a half hour or an hour earlier in the morning so that they have time to do things at child-speed rather than adult-speed. We can get up before they do and shower and have our coffee and get dressed and have a bit of quiet time so we can be finished with all of our own stuff so that we are available for them once they get up. We can make lunches or choose clothes or get our bags ready the night before. We can ask our kids what would help them in the morning. We could utilize one the Great and Wisdomous Tools of Parenting and we can spend 10 minutes snuggling in bed with them, giving them our absolute undivided attention (no phones!) when they first wake up, since sometimes after a night of sleep, they need some intense connection with a parent to get themselves going. We can’t always do it, but we can do it when we can. Children need us, and they need us to slow down. We can figure out ways to make that happen, at least some of the time.
Children “don’t listen” because we don’t listen to them. They “don’t listen” because we are constantly making demands and they have learned to tune us out. They “don’t listen” because their connection with us is lacking. They “don’t listen” because their agendas are not the same as ours, and they want theirs respected and honored, just like we do. They “don’t listen” because we interrupt them and don’t wait for a good time and don’t respect that they are in the middle of something that is important to them, and they feel disrespected by how we don’t seem to care about that. They “don’t listen” because they want to be more engaged as collaborators rather than being ordered around all day . They “don’t listen” because they spend all day listening in school and they need a break. They “don’t listen” because we rush them. They “don’t listen” because we yell, and pretty much everyone stops listening when people yell at them. They “don’t listen” because we have trained them not to listen by repeating ourselves over and over again, which sends a clear message that it’s just not that important to listen to us the first or the second time. They “don’t listen” because we speak to them from across the room or from another room or from up above them rather than getting down on their level and making some sort of gentle physical connection. They “don’t listen” because often we just aren’t all that interested in what they have to say, and in turn, they’re just not all that interested in what we have to say. They “don’t listen” because we talk too much. They “don’t listen” because at some point, adults talking becomes like background noise. They “don’t listen” because we think what we have to say or what we want is so much more important or valid than what they have to say or what they want, and who wants to listen to someone like that? They “don’t listen” because we don’t have clear enough boundaries and when we do, we don’t hold those boundaries with love and compassion.
They’re listening. I promise. They’re always listening. They just don’t want to do what you want them to do. That’s within their right. Their perspective matters and deserves respect.
Reframe. Refocus. Reflect. Retrain yourself out of the notion of control, the idea that children are to be “managed.” Embrace a mindset of peaceful co-existence, sharing your home and life with smaller people who may have different ideas and preferences and ways of doing things, much like sharing your home with beloved friends and roommates.
This is a problem you can solve. You don’t need a child development expert for this one. Commit yourself to listen to your children as deeply and frequently as you try to manage their actions and behaviors. Model what you value. Trust that they want to do well. As Lily Tomlin once said: “He listened with an intensity that most other people have only while talking.” Listen like that. And watch it return to you.