Getting Kids to Listen: 7 Ways to Reinforce Cycles of Active Listening at Home

No one likes to be ignored. It can be infuriating to repeat yourself over and over and feel like no one is listening. Sometimes it’s not listening we are looking for but compliance. When parents say, “They don’t listen,” they often mean, “They don’t do what I say, when I say it.” The reason for this may very well be a child not hearing or willfully ignoring the request for some reason.

Parents often start with a simple, harmless request. They begin, “Please turn off the TV and come to dinner…” (crickets)… Then the request slowly evolves into something that looks more like a demand and then a battle. We increase the intensity and volume a little with, “Could you come to dinner, please!… (More silence thanis normal in your home follows)… Did you hear me? I said turn it off and come sit at the table… (still, glazed eyes and no visible or verbal sign of recognition comes)… Are you deaf? Turn that stupid thing off and do what I say. You never listen!” Finally, our child, looking shocked and surprised at our sudden demand and mood shift, quips, “I’m doing it, relax!”

Whether a child really does not hear due to distractions or misunderstanding, or whether they are purposefully ignoring a parent, either can be very frustrating. In either case the child has personal motives that drive their selective hearing impairment. Each of the seven skills below help to set a new listening cycle in motion.

7 Ways to Strengthen Cycles of Active Listening

  1. Let them be the boss sometimes: Give your children opportunities to lead activities and conversation and listen with full attention. Teach active listening by modeling the skills you would like them to display. Make eye contact. Respond when they ask questions. Even when you are busy, acknowledge their requests, questions and statement. Let them know you will be done in a moment and then you can give your full attention and then honor that. Listen to them. Validate their thoughts and feelings. Try to both listen with your ears and understand with your mind and heart.
  2. Respect that you may have interrupted something: Give your kids the same consideration that you would like them to give to you. When your children ask you to get them a cup of water while you are cleaning the bathroom or carrying thirty lbs. of groceries in from the care, you let them know that they will have to wait until you are done. In the same way, it is more effective to give your child some time to respond, either give them a time frame or allow them to finish the task they are engaged with, depending on the length of their task and the urgency of your request. I know it feels like what we are doing is much more important than what our children are doing at any given moment, but to them, their Lego creation is just as important as your meal creation. Sometimes they are engaged and distracted by others things. Don’t take it personally.
  3. Write it down or draw it: It can be hard for children, and even adults, to remember what they have been asked to do. Whenever I run errands for my wife, she will rattle off a list of a million things I need to do or get and I’ll say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, let’s get a pad and paper.” Mom’s have this amazing ability to organize all of that stuff in their minds, but kids and husbands, not so much. We need to have these things written down, better yet, draw us pictures. For small children, and husbands, pictures work the best. When you do this, it leads to the next point.
  4. Tell them once: When you tell them, make sure that they can see and hear you. Move toward them. If you are all the way across the room and they are otherwise distracted, realize that if you do not move toward them, you will probably not have their full attention and listening. Gain their full attention. Give them a gentle tap on the shoulder or a tickle to redirect their attention in a positive way. When you have their undivided attention, tell them what you need and ask them to repeat what you said. Then simply let them know that you have written it down on a paper on the fridge or a family whiteboard. Make it short and simple. Then, leave it alone.
  5. Be patient: After you have spoken, wait. I have had several instances with my own children when I have asked them to do something, and only a few seconds later have been compelled to harp on them. Instead I have chosen to refrain, and within seconds of when I would have scolded them for their “not listening and doing what was asked,” they have done the task and done it cheerfully. I often think about how those interactions might have been different if I was not patient and willing to wait a few more seconds. It is almost always better in the long run for your child to do something on their own, than it is for them to be compelled to do it.
  6. Follow through with consequences of not following directions: Have established limits and consequences and follow through with them. If you give a direction to clean up toys before dinner time and they “don’t listen.” Don’t worry about not listening, just let them know that they are free to join the rest of the family for dinner as soon as the toys are cleaned up. Follow through with the consequence kindly and calmly, but assertively. Finally, thank them for completing the task when it is finished.
  7. Maintain unconditional love and regard: Don’t let one instance create the label for your child that they “never listen.” Treat each instance as if it is an isolated incident and start again. Speak kind words to them even if they have not “listened or done what was asked.” Review in your mind all of the conversations you have with them when they do listen. Trust that these principles of respectful and active listening and participation will work, indeed that they are working.

One of the primary laws of relationships is “listen first, then you will be heard.” We can listen with our ears or with our minds, hearts, eyes and whole selves. As we listen to them, to their words, their needs, their interests and their deeds, we come to better know when to speak and be heard. The cycle changes from angry demands that they listen NOW (that falls on deaf ears,) to understanding, loving, patient and appreciative requests that are carried and are honored.

Question: What is one step you can take this week to improve “listening” in your home?

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