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"Are You Listening to Me?"

Sometimes it feels like our children don’t hear a word we say. There’s a reason for that, and it’s not because they’re ignoring us.

By Michelle Anthony | null , null

I have told my daughter at least 100 times that her bedroom lights go off at 9 p.m. But still I find her reading under her blankets almost every night at 10:30. While I realize that having an 8-year-old who’s seriously into books is not the worst problem in the world, it frustrates me that when I tell her “Lights out,” she doesn’t seem to listen. It happens in other areas of our everyday life as well, and it’s aggravating. Like when I have to ask her every single morning to put her breakfast plate in the dishwasher, not leave it on the counter, or to pull her shoes on now before the school bus disappears down the street.

Maya is a good kid. Her teacher adores her, and she’s generally well-behaved and cooperative at home. Unless she’s in a particularly cranky mood, she’s rarely defiant. So why do I so often feel like I’m talking to a brick wall?

Major Issues
Regardless of age or gender, your child will appear to tune you out from time to time or seem to defy you. Barring an underlying medical or psychological cause, such as attention deficit disorder, autism, or hearing problems, there are two main reasons why your requests fall on deaf ears. The first is that sometimes our own behavior unintentionally grants our children permission to tune us out. The second is simply that “refusing to listen” is a natural stage of childhood development. These two issues often work hand-in-hand; understanding both can help you develop more effective strategies for communicating with your child and encourage the response you want from her. In turn, this can strengthen the connection between you two as well as connections she has with other family members, friends, and teachers.

Examine Thyself
How often do you tell your child that he has 5 more minutes on the playground only to grab him by the hand and lead him to the car 15 minutes later? Are you a master of the “count it out” discipline technique? “You have until I count to 3 to turn off the video game” . . . and then 10 minutes later you’re back, counting again? We all make empty threats like these. We want to be the tough guy in order to get things done, but as busy moms, we often don’t have the time or the energy to focus our efforts on solving every scenario like this that arises. Imagine how long each day would be if we did!

But when we’re inconsistent with our follow-through and fail to hold our children accountable when they don’t do as they’re told, they learn not to take us seriously. They know that a 5-minute warning really means 20 minutes. Or that 9 p.m. really means 10:30.

Similarly, when we raise our voices too often, fly off on tangents in the heat of the moment, or make obviously empty threats (few kids over the age of 5 believe that their parents will actually stop the car and make them walk the rest of the way home), we lose their attention. Children tune us out when we throw too many words and too much volume at them. We overwhelm them with emotion when what we need to do is communicate our wishes as calmly, clearly, and firmly as possible.

Yet sometimes we can feel like we’re calm and clear and still be left perplexed by our children’s brick wall reaction. At these times, your child’s refusal to listen may have more to do with the stage of development he’s at than your parenting style. Here’s a look at those stages.

The Ages of Reason
Preschool (3 to 6): Around toddlerhood, kids often fail to listen to your directions by accident. While their behavior may seem defiant, they’re going through a stage where they don’t realize that their parents’ thoughts are not the same as their own thoughts. They’re so closely tied to you that they haven’t yet figured out that their brains and wishes are separate from yours. So when they feel strongly about doing something, they subconsciously believe that you want them to do the same thing. That may be, for example, why your 4-year-old doesn’t always drop the puzzle she’s working on and come running when you call her. Additionally, children this age can’t yet process long chunks of information, so your child will have trouble understanding what exactly you want her to do if it takes you more than a sentence or two to describe it to her.

Middle Childhood (7 to 10): By now, children are fully aware of the fact that they’ve got minds of their own (literally!). This is when they start putting effort into listening to what parents and teachers tell them, but they can’t always stay focused. While kids in this age group are developing stronger planning, organization, and attention skills, they’re still not very good at prioritizing and multitasking, and what they want will tend to come first. Your child’s attention may drift from your instructions because he’s trying to focus on both his own thoughts and your words at the same time, which isn’t easy to manage when you’re talking homework and he’s thinking dinosaurs.

This age group also tends to overestimate their ability to manage more than one task at once and has not yet gotten the hang of estimating how long it will take to get something done. Your child might understand that you want him to come to the table for dinner, for example, but he also wants to finish the level he’s playing in his video game, so he assumes that he can do both as long as he finishes the level quickly — you’ll never notice. Ten minutes later, you may still be calling him to the table. Again, the goal is not to defy you, it’s simply that when it comes to allocating his time and energy, your needs fall short of his own.

All Ages: It’s important to remember that all children are susceptible to sensory overload. While it’s hard enough for adults to focus and follow instructions when there are distractions in the room (TV, computer, music, children playing), it’s even more difficult for kids who are still learning to prioritize and to strengthen their attention skills. If you’re giving directions in a noisy, busy, or exciting atmosphere, you can’t really blame a child for failing to listen to you when he hasn’t been given a fair chance.

Building a Better Listener
The first and most natural step toward helping your child be a better listener is to work with the developmental stage he’s in rather than against it.

Preschool (3 to 6): While you can’t change your child’s thought process or wishes, or speed her through this stage, you can begin to guide her by holding firm to routines, limits, and expectations. You can make sure that the instructions you give her are short, direct, and simple, such as “Put down that toy and come into the kitchen.” Offer directions for larger tasks in a series of clear steps.

Middle Childhood (7 to 10): Offer advance warning when you need your child to make a transition from something he wants to do (playing a computer game) to something you need him to do (come to the dinner table). You can also try offering your child a choice of routes that will ultimately get him to the same end point. For example, instead of saying, “Turn off your game and come to dinner,” try, “Dinner is in 15 minutes. You can either turn off your game after you lose the next life, or you can leave the game midway through, when dinner starts. Your choice.” At first, try to cut him some slack and support him as he gets used to the new system with statements like, “I see you just lost that life. Show me you can follow through by coming to dinner.”

All Ages: Try to make sure that the environment is quiet and clear of distractions and to lower your voice when you speak — this can raise your child’s attention level. If the situation calls for it, you might have your child choose the last thing she’ll do before focusing on what you’ve asked of her. For instance, offer her one final trip down the slide before heading to the car. In any situation, resist making threats you won’t carry out, and always follow through with the consequences you do put out there. Refuse to get angry, if you can. Focus on the rule, “It’s not a choice to not listen to me.”

Enhanced Listening Skills
Take it to the next level by beginning to create an engaged listening relationship with your child. It can improve everyday communication in your home as well as give your child a leg up at school.

Find a moment each day during which you and your family practice listening to each other — maybe dinnertime or during a walk in the park after school. You might start off this special time by talking about the goals of listening and giving instructions. You might also chat about how to ask probing questions that can clarify directions or take a conversation to a deeper place.

Get down on her level. Squat, kneel, or sit on the floor if you need to in order to look into her eyes while you speak.

Find a quiet environment so that you can focus on each other. Lead your child into a quieter room or section of the park and turn off your cell phone.

Emphasize your main point and ask him in a gentle way to paraphrase what you want him to do, repeat the steps, or restate the most important part of what you said.

Model active listening while talking with your child. This means remaining fully attentive to her, without imparting your feelings, values, or judgments, unless your child asks for them. It means trying to understand your child and her feelings instead of trying to fix, explain, or intercede.

· Look directly at your child; give her your full attention.

· Use gentle touch at appropriate moments to let her know she has your attention and to refocus hers.

· Support conversational pauses or silences so you’re not instantly jumping in with your idea or interrupting your child’s thoughts.

· Restate a condensed version of what she said. Use phrases such as, “I’m hearing you say . . .”

· Focus on the main message of what your child is trying to say—beyond the details—and respond without adding your judgments or introducing new ideas.

Explain to your child what it means to be a good listener and what good can come of it. While children will often model their behavior after yours, it can make a big difference when they understand why you behave the way you do and why they should behave the same way. For example, you might say something like, “You show me respect when you look at me while I’m speaking,” or, “Ask me questions if you don’t understand what I’ve said. It shows me that you need me to be more clear and that you care about what I’m telling you.”

Catch her being good. Be sure to say, often, “Wow! I notice how hard you’re working to listen to what I’m saying!”

About the Author

Michelle Anthony, M.A., Ph.D., is co-author of Little Girls Can Be Mean: Four Steps to Bully-Proof Girls in the Early Grades, a certified K-3 teacher, and an expert in developmental psychology.  She is mother to three young children and co-founder of Wide-Eyed Learning, a company devoted to facilitating communication and learning between parents and children.

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