As a parent, have you found yourself saying phrases like; “I’m talking to a brick wall” or “I’ve asked the same thing 3 times now” to your children?
Knowing how to get children to listen can often feel like a battle! You may have a strong-willed child, or their behaviour makes them seem defiant or inattentive. The reality is that this is often a way to get your attention or express their need for power.
I have 3 teenage and adult girls who are all very different – one approach did not suit all! So, I’ve had to be adaptable to their needs (and levels of willing engagement!) Essentially, before I could expect them to listen to me, I needed to ensure I was really listening to them.
Mastering the art of listening can:
- strengthen your connection with your child.
- improve your relationship.
This article explores the role of both parent and child in how to get children to listen when we need them to. There are some great ideas to ensure your words don’t fall on deaf ears.
The Importance of Raising a Good Listener
Listening is a key skill that children need in order to thrive in their world:
- To access their education.
- Follow directions in the playground.
- Hear how to keep safe.
- Experience positive relationships.
- Have successful social interactions and friendships.
The importance of being a good listener mustn’t be underestimated. Poor listening skills can lead to other difficulties for a child. For example:
- Negative behaviour patterns.
- Social isolation or hurt feelings.
- Incorrect assumptions and misunderstandings.
- Closes down effective communication.
So, how do you find appropriate ways to develop good listening skills in your child and get them to listen to you?
Seven Quick-Check Tips on How to Get Children to Listen
- Be a good listener. Avoid interrupting when your child is telling you something.
- Say what you mean. Keep verbal language simple and age appropriate.
- Be clear. Stick to one single instruction at a time.
- Praise. Notice when your child makes an effort to listen and respond.
- Set the right conditions. If you need a child to listen, make sure there are no major distractions such as loud TV programmes or video games in the background.
- Be present. Don’t multi-task when you or your child are speaking. Make sure you’re in the same room.
- Play and teach. Try listening games.
Now let’s go into more depth about how you can set up your daily life so that your child hears and responds first time, every time!
Set Clear Expectations
Listening is a difficult skill to master. It must be practised every day for months or even years.
How much listening practise does your child get?
With a little help, children can get used to how listening is done! First of all, children need expectations and boundaries to work with. Consider this when you need them to listen to you.
Perhaps as a family you often multi-task or call out from different rooms? Has it become a habit that you have to say something more than once?
Making simple changes to the way you approach requests and expectations can have major positive impact. Here are 5 simple ways to help you set clear expectations.
- Explain. State your values or expectations “I expect you….”.
- Be ultra-specific. Focus on what your child can (or is allowed to) do, rather than on what they can’t. Don’t be vague or leave any room for doubt. For example, “I will put the soup in the bowls and I want you to carry them to the table.” Always avoid vague instructions like “tidy your room”, that can be confusing and overwhelming even for teens. Break it down into smaller chunks e.g. “please collect up all the dirty clothes from your floor and put them next to the washing machine”.
- Explain why you need them to listen. For example, it may be to keep them safe, or so that you can get dinner prepped quickly so that you can get to scouts on time.
- Describe the result or impact that not listening might have on them or others.
- Ask your child to repeat back your request so you both know they understand what is expected of them.
Ensure Their Full Attention
C B C – Connect Before Communicating!
The key to knowing how to get children to listen is connecting with them. I often call it ‘tuning-in’, like a radio. If you’re on the same wavelength, listening and understanding will be easier.
How you might get your child’s full attention:
- Connect (tune-in) before you start speaking. For example, consider whether they are in the middle of doing something, and what state of mind they are in. This requires you to be fully present and not distracted.
- Be in the same room wherever possible! Face to face connection allows for a broader connection with body language feedback available to you both.
- Observe. What is your child doing? Show interest in what they are doing and perhaps make a comment about it. This will help you to connect.
- Get down to your child’s level and establish eye contact.
- Gentle touches are a great way demonstrate you are there and you need them to notice you. But this must be on your child’s terms. If they don’t like touch or are not expecting it, it may not prime them for calm and effective listening. In fact it may have the opposite effect.
- Younger children or teenagers immersed in a video game may need more explanation as to why you need them to listen.
- Notice and praise positive attention when you receive it.
Getting Your Child to Listen: Pick Your Moments
With time and through lots of trial and error I’ve learnt to ‘pick my moments’ with my own children. If they are tired, pre-occupied, poorly or in a noticeably bad mood, it’s often harder to engage them.
Perhaps you recognise this in yourself too? Have you ever not felt like engaging in conversation or being tasked to do something after a long day at work, or if you’re experiencing a hard time in your own life. It’s no different for your children.
For children, after school is a typical flash point. Your child has been concentrating, following rules, getting to lessons on time and managing all sorts of relationships through the day. It’s likely they just need to decompress at the end of the day before getting on with the after-school routine.
- Don’t bombard your child with loads of questions or make demands on them straight after school.
- Do ask 1 or 2 connection questions such as: “How was your day?” or ““Would you like something to eat?”
Check Your Body Language and Tone of Voice
Part of knowing how to get children to listen is the developing the appropriate use of nonverbal communication cues. How you listen, react, express or move can tell your child a lot! It can tell them whether you care about what is being communicated and how well you’re listening to them.
What does your child see or hear when you talk to them?
Frustration, anger, urgency? If you loom over them with your arms folded in an authoritative manner, ask yourself ‘is your child likely to listen and engage with you’? It’s more likely they will go into fight or flight mode and their response will not generally be positive.
Positive ways of using body language and tone:
- Use a calm, rhythmic voice. This will feel nurturing and reassuring to your child.
- Try not to shout. Shouting tends to shut children down rather than engage them and can often increase levels of anxiety, stress and behavioural problems.
- With posture and facial expressions, carefully consider what message you are trying to convey. You can show you are upset or angry without shouting. Shouting may cause a defensive reaction and isn’t ultimately productive. Match your words and communication with your posture and facial expressions. This adds weight to the message you are trying to get across.
Calm Your Body
If you have something important or perhaps tricky to talk to your child about it’s best to be in a calm body and mind state before engaging. One of the most effective ways of doing this is through breathing exercises. Taking in a few deep breaths can help ground and centre you.
Use Humour to Get Your Child to Listen
Using humour is just one of the simple ways to connect and improve your parent-child relationship.
Humour can be really useful when things get stressful. It can help to diffuse and break a cycle of angst or resistance, especially when your child is not expecting it! However, be sure to avoid sarcasm or any kind of teasing if your child isn’t in the right frame of mind.
Give Advance Notice (When You Can)
Set boundaries, time limits and give advance warning of what you need your children to act on. If your child is happily playing with a friend, on a video game or their cell phone, giving an instruction to immediately go up for bath time are going to be met with resistance.
You are likely to have fewer power struggles if you set time expectations in advance so there are no surprises. Here’s an example:
Leanne finds organising and time keeping difficult. When her mum asks her to do something immediately, she can find this stressful and often doesn’t respond well. Leanne and mum are at the dinner table. Here’s the conversation they had:
“Leanne, have you got a minute to talk about the competition tomorrow?”
“Sure, let me just finish this mouthful!”
“I’ve put your kit in the laundry cupboard to air, I’ll put it in your bag later in your bedroom”
“We need to be off early in the morning, the competition starts at 9am, so I reckon we need to leave at 8am”
“Uggh, that’s early, what time do I need to be up at?”
“ 7 I’m afraid.”
“Can you make sure I’m up Mum?”
“I will, but make sure you put on your alarm too.”
“Are you up Leanne?”
“OK, but you need to be up getting ready in the next 5 minutes or we will be tight for time.”
“and don’t forget to bring your kit bag down with you.”
This demonstrates Leanne’s mother’s understanding of her need for support with time-keeping. She has done some preparation with Leanne, who now understands what is expected of her. Her mother is scaffolding but also making sure Leanne takes responsibility for getting ready too.
Notice and Use Positive Reinforcement
Younger children in particular need to experience positive reinforcement when they show good listening. Positive reinforcement is the act of rewarding behaviour in order to encourage it to happen again. You can do this through verbal praise, hugs or other reward.
Active listening can lead to mutual respect between parent and child. If your child hears you are pleased or proud they’ve done the right thing in something they do, they are more likely to want to repeat this to seek out the praise and acceptance from you.
Allow Natural Consequences
Punishments tend to be characterized by using fear to get children to do what you want them to do or behave well. Mental health professionals do not advise use of punishments. Natural punishments are a healthier alternative.
Natural consequences are not placed on a child by a parent, but instead by what happens as a result. Natural consequences can help children to understand the impact of their actions on them and others.
Examples of natural consequences when a child doesn’t listen.
- If they don’t listen to and follow the rules on the football field, they get sent off.
- If your child refuses to take the umbrella, they will get wet.
- If your child doesn’t complete their homework and hand it in on time, they may fail the assignment.
In the long-run, in order to help your child to make good choices, they need to understand natural and logical consequences. So be aware of “rescuing” your child too often. Try to encourage your child to take responsibility for any mistakes, harm or damage done. The intention is to teach them that every action has a reaction, response or consequence.
Work on Active Listening Skills
Active listening is a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding. Being a good role model isn’t always easy though. You’re human, so don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t always work.
How do you know your child has ‘understood’ what you’ve said to them? A simple way to ensure they’ve heard you is to ask them to repeat back what you said.
Dad: “So, what did I say we need to do in 5 minutes time Jack?”
Jack :“You said I need to finish up on my game and get my shoes on to go to parents evening”.
If there are any gaps or they’ve not understood fully, repeat and check-in again.
TAKE THE QUIZ!
What to Avoid When You Want Your Child to Listen
Remember the first step is C B C – connect before communicating. The next time you need your child to listen to you, try to avoid these common traps so that you can enhance more positive outcomes and better behaviour.
- Making threats.
- Shouting from another room.
- Focusing on your child’s negative ways.
- Trying to have a deep and meaningful conversation when your child is enjoying screen time or busy doing homework.
- Harsh punishment.
Rule Out Physical / Medical Issues
If you feel your child isn’t listening to you, it’s important to rule out any medical condition or hearing defect. You can visit your doctor who may make a referral to an audiologist.
A child’s unresponsiveness maybe due to a number of different things, so it’s best to check things out with your doctor to see if there are any underlying issues or conditions that are preventing them from attending and connecting.
Some examples are:-
- APD: Auditory Processing Disorder. The child has a difficulty in understanding sounds, including spoken words.
- ASD: Autism Spectrum Disorder.
- PTSD: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or other trauma related experiences.
- ADHD: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
How to Get a Child to Listen Without Yelling
Yelling is not an effective way to get a child to listen. It teaches unhelpful communication patterns and either raises stress levels or – over time – it becomes the “default mode” and your child will ignore your requests.
To get a child to listen without yelling, ensure you have your child’s full attention. For example, make sure you’re in the same room and you have their eye contact.
You may need to touch them gently e.g. on the shoulder.
Next focus on using a calm tone of voice. Consistency and patience are key in building a healthy and respectful parent-child relationship.
Take a look at our article on how to stay calm with your child, which you will find really useful.
How to Get a Child to Listen and Follow Directions
To get a child to follow directions, be clear and concise in your instructions. Use simple language, and provide visual cues if necessary. Complex directions can overwhelm a child and make it more difficult for them to follow through, leading to frustration and misbehaviour. Simplifying instructions will increase the likelihood of success and create a positive learning environment.
If your child is often resistant to following directions, give them two clear choices and ask them to choose. For example, “Do you want to have a shower before or after dinner?” This approach gives your child a sense of control and can help to reduce resistance and increase compliance.
The basics of listening are pretty simple – Connect to Communicate and you will be more likely to get cooperation form a child of any age. Remember to be present and ensure your child’s full attention before in order to have them listen to you.
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids by Dr Laura Markham
Hayley Vaughan Smith is a Person Centred Counsellor accredited by the National Counselling Society. She is the founder and counsellor at The Ridge Practice in Buckinghamshire, and Counsellor at Everlief Child Psychology.
Hayley has a special interest in bereavement counselling and has worked as a bereavement volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care since 2019. Being a mum to 3 girls is hard work and rewarding in equal measure and gardening and walking in nature is her own personal therapy – Hayley believes being in nature, whatever the weather, is incredibly beneficial for mental health well-being.
Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips and great ideas to support teens and pre-teens with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.