“My child doesn’t listen to anything I say or ask of her! She totally tunes me out and then we get into a power struggle and things just get worse from there. Please help!”

In my practice, “my kid doesn’t listen to me” is a common problem parents come to discuss.  And as a starting point, I always try to reframe the issue to get to the heart of what we are really talking about.  See, no parent has ever said that listening is a problem when they tell a child, “Ice cream sundaes are on the kitchen table!” or “You can start an extra TV show now!” What we are really talking about when we refer to “listening” is this: cooperation from my child when I want my child to do something she doesn’t want to do. 

Which makes me think, what do we, as adults, do when someone asks us to do something we don’t want to do? Well, it’s all based on how close we feel to that person in the moment.  For example, if I’m feeling really good about my marriage, and my husband asks me to grab him something on my way home from work, I’ll probably say yes.  But if things between us feel distant and I’ve recently been feeling unappreciated or misunderstood, I’m more likely to tell him I’m too rushed.

Here’s the truth about listening: the more you feel connected to someone, the more you want to comply with requests.  Listening is a barometer for the strength of a relationship in that moment. So, if your child isn’t cooperating, he’s trying to tell you that your relationship with him needs some TLC.  This is not a referendum of your parenting… all parent-child relationships need some extra love and attention sometimes! In my house, with my three kids, I am constantly receiving feedback (i.e., when they are in a not-listening phase!) that I need to slow down and think about each of my children’s unique needs and do some relationship strengthening.  The best advice I can give around engaging cooperation and listening is to shore-up your relationship with your child, and that looks different for each parent-child relationship.

But here’s the thing… I’m a pragmatist at heart. So, let’s review some in-the-moment strategies, but don’t be fooled – you cannot engage longer term cooperation by only relying on this list.  It’s important to set aside some time to reframe this whole “not listening” issue as a relationship dynamic that needs some attention.

Try This at Home:

The following strategies involve building experiences of connection, which helps improve cooperation and listening.  See which ones resonate with you, try something out, and then return to this list and try something else.  As always, let me know how it goes and what roadblocks you hit.

 Strategies:

1. Connect to your child in the moment before you ask something from her. My eight-year-old son told me this about listening: “Kids don’t always listen because usually a parent asks us to stop doing something fun to do something that isn’t fun.”  So connect to your child before you make a request to do something “less fun.” Your child has to feel seen in what she’s doing or feeling before she’s able to switch out of something that feels good in her world (i.e., reading a book in her bed) and fulfill a request that is a priority in your parenting world (i.e., getting her shoes on and leaving the house).

Examples:

  • “Wow, you’ve been working so hard on that tower.  I know it’s going to be a bit tricky to pause and take a bath.  If we do a quick bath now, you will still have time to build before bed.”

  • “I know it’s so hard to end play dates because you’ve been having so much fun.  We have to leave now, but Kate’s mom and I can set up your next playdate really soon.”

2. Humor.  Humor allows for a change in perspective, which is what we are looking for when we ask things of our children. When we bring laughter into the equation, our kids feel more connected to us and are more likely to cooperate.

 Examples:

  • “Oh no… your listening ears are lost! Ok wait, I think I found them.  Oh my goodness can you believe this… I found them in this plant! How did they get there? Let’s get them back on your body before they sprout into a flower!”

  • “My mommy is always asking me to do things I don’t want to do! It is so hard to be a kid! If only my mom understood how hard it is to be a kid, always being asked to do things you don’t want to do!”

3. One-thing only, Sentence, Desired Behavior.  Request only one desired behavior.  State your request as a sentence, not a question. Tell your child what you want, as opposed to telling your child to stop doing what you don’t want.

Examples:

  • “Please put your shoes in the closet” (better than, “Please put your shoes in the closet and then wash your hands and come to the dinner table.”).

  • “Please wash your hands” (better than, “Can you wash your hands?”).

  • “Please use a quieter voice” (better than “Stop yelling!”).

4. Focus on your soft, calm tone first… and your words second.  Our children feel the non-verbal aspects of our speech before they process our words, and children need to feel safe to process the language we use. This means that if we use a scary tone of voice, our children go into threat mode and literally will not be able to listen to us because their body is too overwhelmed with anxiety.

Reminders:

  • Take a deep breath before you speak to your kid.

  • Think, “Slow, soft, steady” with your speech.

5. Empower your child with choices. If you can give your child agency to make a choice, he will be more likely to cooperate. No one likes feeling “done to,” especially children who already feel so controlled a lot of the time.  Give choices that you can deal with and then let your child know that you trust him to follow through on that choice.

Examples:

  • “We can leave Abby’s house now or you can play one more card game together.  I’ll leave it up to you … Oh, after one more game? I know you’ll follow through with that choice, so that’s fine with me.”

  • “You can clear your dishes now or come back to do it after your shower… oh, after your shower? Ok, I trust that you will do that, sounds good.”

6. Let some of it go.  Think about what demands you can put on the back burner.  I think that a lot of us (me included!) worry that we are not being good parents if we are “too lenient” and “let things go” sometimes, but what we often lose sight of is that our child listening to us often isn’t worth it if it comes at the expense of our relationship.

Examples:

  • Give yourself permission to clear your child’s dishes here and there.

  • Give yourself permission to hang your child’s towel when you notice it on the ground.

  • Give yourself permission to allow your child to forget to say thank you when he leaves a friend’s house … don’t ask him to say it on the way out and don’t lecture about it when you’re in private.  Model the thank you yourself and let it go.

7. Reverse Roles.  Find a few times to play the “I have to listen to you now” game with your child. Introduce this by saying to your child, “I know being a kid is tough. There are so many things that parents ask of you! So, let’s play a game. For the next 5 minutes, you’re the adult and I’m the kid.  I have to do what you say, assuming it’s safe.”

Explain to your child that the game does not involve food or purchasing items (i.e., your child cannot tell you to go buy them 40 new Pokemon packs or give them 3 bags of Skittles), but more about the routine of your day.  The details here aren’t important – what’s important is to reverse roles and allow your child to experiment with the position of powerful adult and for you to express empathy for the difficulties of being a child.

While you play the game, be exaggerated in expressing how hard it is to listen to your “parent”; voice things like, “Ughhhhhh, really? I have to clean up the magnatiles? I don’t waaaaaaant to” and “Ughhhhh, I wish I didn’t have to take a shower right now!”

8. Search for the moments your child is listening and give positive feedback. When I say “search,” I mean it, because when things feel tough with one of our children, we often have to almost manufacture opportunities that feel like “wins.” But we want to get our kids back on a positive cycle, not stuck in a negative one.

Examples:

  • “Wow, thanks for listening right away. I noticed that I only had to ask once.”

  • “I asked you to come to the table and you did.  I’m really loving that cooperation, thank you.”  Add in a hug.

9. Have a calm, respectful problem-solving meeting with your child. Explain that when things don’t feel great between two adults, they sit together and try to better understand each other.  Tell your child that you’d like to do the same thing.  Emphasize that no one is in trouble.

Tell your child in a calm loving voice, “Hey, I know that listening to me has been an issue lately, and so what that tells me is that something is off between us.  I want to sit down and think together about what’s going on and what you need from me to have things feel more peaceful between us. You’re not in trouble… in fact, I am coming to you because I respect your opinions about what’s going on.”

This method – brainstorming and problem solving together – is incredibly powerful because it brings you and your child together instead of pulling you apart. Have a notepad at your meeting and write down every idea you and your child come up with that might have anything to do with the not-listening problem or the more general things-feel-off-between-us problem.  Respect what your child says – no arguing or negating or “that’s not true!” comments are allowed. This is a pure brainstorming session.

Then review the list calmly and decide together which of the points you can really follow up with.  As a parent, the goal is for you to validate the items your child has voiced, not for you to convince your child about a point you have voiced.

10. Reflect on what your child needs, more long-term, to strengthen your relationship. Now remember – no one is saying that your relationship with your child is in the pits. It’s very likely that you haven’t done anything wrong at all!  Think smaller, something like, “Ok, I just need to think about closing some gap that must exist between me and my child right now.  I am a good parent to be willing to reflect on things in this way!”

There’s no magic formula, so just allow yourself to wonder about what’s going on with your child.  Does he need some more one-on-one time with you, even just 10 phone-free minutes early in the morning or late at night?  Does he feel misunderstood or judged? Is he struggling with something at school and hasn’t talked about it with you? There are endless questions to ask, and I encourage all parents to just start by to reframing “not listening” not as a child-only problem but as a sign that something in the parent-child relationship needs some more attention.

Last: if this connection-based approach resonates with you and you’re looking for a more comprehensive approach to manage tough moments and build what I believe it the core developmental skill of childhood – emotion regulation – check out my foundational course, Managing Meltdowns and Building Emotion Regulation