How can we help children to start listening?


Have you ever felt as if you’re invisible when you ask your children to start listening to you or to stop doing something? Have you ever felt as if you are speaking a completely different language when you ask the children to do something and they just look at you blankly or ignore you or continue to jump around the place? Or maybe that you’ve been transported to some parallel universe where they can no longer see you but you can still see them (okay, watching too much sci-fi on Netflix….).

Or how about when none of your efforts work to ask the child to listen to you, and all of a sudden they begin to pay attention to a kindly person in the store that talks to them or a neighbor? They look up at this person with full attention as if mesmerized and nod in agreement – then the person in the store or the neighbor tells us what wonderful children you have. You don’t know whether to accept the compliment or to be dumbfounded. 

The other thing you notice is that when you’re in Walmart or Target with your children, you keep hearing other parents saying things like “If you don’t listen to me or do X, we’re going RIGHT NOW!” and the decibels rise up, as the sentence finishes.

Can you relate to this?

If only there was some spell I could use or if I knew a child whisperer person who could transmit my parent message to my kids so that they would hear me.

To teach kids to start listening: Only Connect


Only connect is a famous phrase from E.M. Forster‘s novel Howard’s End, with a related part that says “live in fragments no longer”. That seems apt here too. 

We would like to be able to connect with our children, so that they hear us, that they listen, and that we don’t have these ‘fragmented’ connections that only seem to work some of the time. However, we often become so busy “doing” that we forget to really connect – listen and be heard. 

So, how can we do this – only connect – and will it make a difference? The short answer is ‘yes’, connection will help with listening.


The way ahead to kids listening


First of all, connect the dots……

  1. Make sure that there is no physical or medical issue why your child may not be hearing you (seriously, sometimes children have hearing issues – check into this and rule it in or out).
  2. Make sure that there is no attention deficit disorder (ADD) or other conditions.
  3. Check and see if there is any other issue that could be difficult or distracting for your child, like a ear or toothache, or another distracting pain. 


Moving Up the Gears 

If you have ever seen the gears on a bike, you’ll know that changing them can make the bike go faster. Once you know there are no underlying issues, we can begin to move it up a few beats to get kids listening for good. Ready?


1. Meet the child at their level

This means – literally – hunker down in front of the child, so that you are both at eye level and making eye contact. Make sure that the child sees you. If necessary, gently hold the child’s hand and ask for their full attention. You speaking with them, not at them. Only connect.

2. Avoid the word “don’t” when you can

If I say to you – “don’t think about a pink elephant right now”, what you think you are most likely to do? Of course, you’re going to think about a pink elephant. See it in your head?

So, knock out the don’ts and shoulds and the musts.

Ask clearly for what you need in a positive way. For example, instead of saying: “don’t run so fast across the kitchen floor”, try saying: “please go nice and slowly when you’re in the kitchen”.

Instead of “don’t poke your brother”, say “please be gentle when you’re playing with your brother”, or  “I can see that you are really cross with your brother, and that must be hard for you. What can we do about it?” (This starts a conversation).

3. Keep it short and specific to improve listening

The brain is a limited capacity attention processor. It can only process so much information at once. Children are growing and are in the process of development. Their thoughts are not as complicated as adults, and they tend to be very concrete thinkers.


So, instead of stringing many thoughts together, like “You are not eating your dinner, just like yesterday. When I was little, I ate all my vegetables. And you also should put your plate away when you’re finished, you didn’t do that yesterday either. I keep telling you about this over and over. Starting from tomorrow, you need to do it every day”.

At this point, any child is a little bit like Homer Simpson’s dog and has just tuned out from all of this blah blah blah.

What is the key message here? What are you really asking the child to do? It would seem like this is a big bundle of feelings about being upset and taken for granted.

Think about what is the one action that you would like to focus on. What would you like your child to do instead? Remember, the brain is a limited capacity attention processor – it can only process so much at once. Would you feel better if your child put the plate away every day after dinner? Would this make a difference or be a start?

If so, focus on this, focus on the first step you want to reinforce (sometimes you need to start small).

Instead, ask your child to bring their plate from the dinner table when they’re finished eating. You might need to remind them so that this becomes a habit, but not drowning the message with add-ons and special requests will make it more tangible.

“Mike, can you please ring your place to the sink? You’re a great helper. Thank you”.

Once you’ve spent a few days reminding them, you can begin to direct the reminder without saying it, like “Mike, what can you do after you’re done your dinner?”.

This will ensure that the idea starts coming from the child, and not from a reminder.

4. Add a dollop of praise

The Irish have a phrase which says ‘Praise the youth and they will follow’. In practice, it means that giving a child praise is a form of positive reinforcement and recognition. It is likely to recognize, reinforce, and encourage good behavior, and to see it repeated or become a habit.

Children like praise – they like to feel appreciated and to have a sense of belonging.

Instead of punishing negative behavior, reinforce the good one!

5. Thank you is the icing on the cake

Saying ‘Thank you’ seals the deal – especially if you can add this to the start of the sentence.  For example, “thanks for helping me tidy up the dishes” or “thanks so much for the way you have kept your room clean this week”.

Children will feel proud of having done the work, and you will insert a practice of gratitude towards your children. Try it!

6. Check Understanding and Echo It

In human communication, the message often gets lost between the sender and receiver. Get into the habit with each other of ‘sending a message’, ‘paraphrasing it back’ to each other. This slows down communication and gets people out of their heads. It offers opportunities to ensure good communication by clarifying any parts of the message that have not been ‘transmitted’ or ‘received’ fully. This is often used as a technique in couples’ communication.

For example, you can ask the child to make their bed, ask them to agree to make their bed (a simple yes will not suffice, they have to acknowledge the action), and then repeat back to them by paraphrasing (Great! I can’t wait to see a neat bed every day!).

7. Do ‘The Matrix’


Have you ever seen The Matrix? It has these brilliant slow motion scenes with  Keanu Reeves. The message here is to slow the communication right down. People’s brains are very active and can have a steady flow of thoughts running through them. The ‘river of communication’ between you and your child needs to be able to run clear, and not be muddied by other streams of competing thoughts that may be happening.

8. Stand and Deliver

It can be helpful just to make a statement and let it hang in the air. No judgment, no agenda – just a comment on what you see.

“I see your cereal bowl is next to your bed”.  See what comes back.

If you get a defensive response (“you’re always telling me to tidy up my room”), just calmly let your child know that you are simply commenting on what you see, in case they did not notice it. Be present, be mindful. Breathe.

You could ask a simple question – “Tell me, what’s happening with X” (the cereal bowl, the trip to town with their friends). This hands the power to the child, in a way that you co-create or share it.

Final Thoughts

Keep in mind that “not listening” should always be a wake-up call for us. While it might seem like defiance or inattention on their part–it is more than likely an unconscious way to get our attention or their need to “test the limits”.

Kids and adults alike have a need to be seen and heard. When this need isn’t met, kids will stop listening to us. It may sound counterintuitive, but it’s the number one complaint parents share!

If power struggles like not listening are creating stress in your family, I’d love to walk you through our step-by-step road map for parenting toddlers to teens. I love to help parents solve this issue and have helped thousands of families just like yours.