Parenting involves a thousand different tasks – often, it seems, in a single day. Which is why it’s so convenient when kids just listen and do what they’re told. Trouble is, they didn’t get the memo.
Every parent-child relationship is unique. And nothing is more special and wonderful than the bond between a child and their caregiver. However, when kids get into the habit of not paying attention, or ignoring important instructions that are in their interest, this bond can become strained – or even hostile. This is why it's worth knowing a few techniques that psychological research has shown to be effective in making your child stop what they're doing and actually listen.
1. Connect first, talk second
Parental attention is one of the most powerful rewards in the life of a young child. And older children also value it (even if they don’t show it). So if you want your kid to listen, take a moment to connect with them first. This might mean removing distractions, getting down on their level and making eye contact. Kids' frontal lobes, the parts of the brain responsible for attention and concentration, are still developing. So while it might seem like they're wilfully ignoring you, they really can find it hard to focus on one thing at a time. Once you’re locked in and they’re looking right back at you, then you can convey the message.
2. Confirm comprehension
Getting a child to repeat back instructions is a great way of confirming they’ve got the message. It also helps them to remember whatever it is. For instance, after telling them that they have to do their homework after dinner, you could ask, “So what do you have to do after dinner?” This not only shows you they've genuinely understood, but also helps them remember the task. This technique is particularly important for expat kids, who might, say, have only one English-speaking parent. As such, they are functioning in multiple languages at once, putting extra load on their cognitive capacity.
3. Go easy on the orders
A parent who is constantly issuing commands is, alas, unlikely to be heard. Children, especially young ones, find it hard to keep up with many instructions, and can simply give up even trying. Make sure your commands are precise, concise... and infrequent. Repeating commands, especially if the child isn’t listening, makes it seem like the message can’t possibly be that important. It can also get you into the trap of nagging – which basically sets up a habit of being ignored.
4. Give a rationale
Adults don’t like being told to do something for no reason, and kids are no different. If you’re making a request, back it up with a rationale. For example, instead of telling your child you have to be out of the house by midday, you could mention that it’s because you're going to grandma’s house, she's cooking, and the food will be cold and less yummy if you’re late.
5. Make the consequences clear – and follow through
If you’re asking your child to do something important, make it clear what will happen if they don’t comply. Outline the reward or punishment in a way that makes sense. (And, for the record, rewards are much more effective in modifying a child's behaviour than punishment). Again, confirm comprehension by asking the child to repeat the consequences. Then make sure to follow through. If you don’t deliver on a reward or punishment, you’re sending a message to your child that they can do whatever they like – because it’s not going to affect what happens to them.
6. Don’t get mad (as hard as that can be)
If you get angry at a non-compliant child, you might be in for more trouble than you expect. Younger children are hard-wired to find pretty much any kind of parental attention inherently rewarding, even if it's a parent getting angry at them. In other words, they might actually like it when you get angry, because you are focussing directly on them, which shows that you care. This means they might start deliberately engaging in behaviours to provoke parental anger. By losing your cool, you're also inadvertently modelling a behaviour that could come back to bite you. Parents are a kid’s main source of information about what emotions to display. And so the message your kid could tacitly be learning is: when someone doesn’t give me what I want, I should be angry at them. What happens next? That anger starts heading back to the parents when the child doesn’t get their way. This can make for some very trying teenage years – and a less than optimal relationship. A wiser strategy is to calmly enact whatever consequences you have outlined in the previous step, but in a non-emotional manner. This sounds counterintuitive, and may take some practice, but the results are worth it.
Of course, all of this is easier said than done. After all, parenting is an art as well as a science, and these tips may have to be adapted to your particular family circumstances. If nothing seems to be working, and your child simply won’t listen, seeking professional help from a psychologist can be an option. Many childhood behavioural problems are eminently treatable, and parents often find that the experience brings them closer to their children than ever before.