(AKA: "Help! My Child Won’t Cooperate")
In session with families, “not listening” is one of the most common frustrations I hear from mums and dads. The first thing I always think about with parents is what are they actually referring to when they say their child is being unresponsive. Often, the lack of response from the child is a symptom, not the actual problem. It is important to address the issue at its roots so that “not listening” doesn’t grow into major meltdowns and behaviours that challenge parents a lot more. The reasons for ‘not listening’ differ from family to family and child to child. Before we can consider strategies to make cooperation easier, we need to consider other factors, including:
What need is your child trying to express? Are they hungry? Tired? Unwell?
What is causing your child to disconnect from what you are saying? Is the task too demanding? Are they engrossed in something else? Is the task unpleasant?
Have you ruled out the potential of your child having a medical condition that may be impacting on hearing or comprehension?
Do not dismiss this important point, particularly if your child is beginning to learn words and you need to have to say things louder frequently and/or use physical contact to get their attention for any request.
Often it is easy to lump the idea that our child is ‘not listening’ when we want cooperation because it triggers something within us as adult. We often take our child’s responsiveness as a message that WE are not being seen or heard. And this can be highly frustrating.
When you are able to explore what is going on for your child, it can be easier to create an action plan to specifically address the problem and get things moving in the direction you want them to! This can take time and it is individual to each child and family so there are no quick fixes here.
We all need to be seen and be heard. As adults when others make requests of us we are more likely to cooperate willingly with others when we like the person asking us to do something, when the person asks nicely rather than shouts a demand, and when there is something positive out of the interaction for us – usually linked to our relationship.
If the case is that your child isn’t listening to simple requests from you, there are a few tips that may help you get things going.
1. Connect With Your Child. Help Them WANT To Listen
Often the reason your child is ‘not listening’ is because they are engrossed in something else that is fun and enjoyable. You need to help your child switch their attention from their task on to you . Your child needs to be seen so you may need to enter their world first – engage .
“Oh wow! That is such a lovely drawing! You are so creative and I hate stopping you but we have to go out now. You can come back to finish this when we get home”
“That Lego tower is amazing, so well built! I know it is hard to stop playing but it’s time for dinner now. If you want to keep it up like that for daddy to see later that’s ok”
2. Get on Their Level
When you need your child’s attention, make sure you ALWAYS have eye contact. Take the time to come down the stairs, walk across the room and get yourself at your child’s level and look at them in the eye, using their name if you need to get them to see you. Proximity is key when you want cooperation – you want to strengthen your communication and take the time it needs to ensure you child sees what you are going to say as important.
2. Simplify your sentence. Focus on the Desired Behaviour
Try to only make ONE request at a time and be specific. Share your request as a sentence not a question – if you want cooperation don’t make this an option or choice for your child to make!
“Please put your shoes on” (better than, “Can you please put your shoes on?” OR “Please put your shoes and your coat on” ).
“Please wash your hands” (better than, “Can you wash your hands?” OR “Can you wash your hands and set the table for me”).
“Time to tidy up the Lego” (better than, “Can you tidy up?” OR “Can you put your Lego and books away?”
3. Cloak Yourself in Calm
When we need cooperation and it isn’t happening as rapidly as we hope it can be an understandable trigger point for annoyance and frustration.
Children will hear your tone of voice BEFORE they process the words you have spoken. If you want cooperation from your child, connect with them in a way that will make them willing participants of the task we are asking them to join us with.
Have a look at my post on ‘cloaking yourself with calm’ and consider taking a deep breath, using a mantra, and talking in a half-whisper. The more quietly you speak, the more they have to FOCUS to listen in to you! Talking softly also means your child will feel safe and stay curious to your demands rather than hearing you shout, which may make them go into threat mode and switch off because their brain is now overwhelmed with anxiety.
4. Offer Choices
We all are more likely to cooperate with a demand when we feel we have some element of control and agency over what is being asked of us. Children can become overwhelmed with choice so if you want to ensure cooperation offer ‘structured choices’ and only 2 options.
“Do you want to wear your trainers or your sandals?”
“Do you want to wash your hands in the bathroom or the kitchen?”
“Do you want to tidy up before or after dinner? You are hungry, okay lets eat. I trust you to tidy up the Lego after dinner”
5. Get Silly and Use Humour
Sillyness and humour is engaging. If you want your child to do something with you or for you then getting laughter around is more likely to get them to do it because they want to participate in the ‘fun’.
Try using humour and get silly when you have done all the steps above but getting going is just not happening.
“Hello!!! Can you hear me? Have I become invisible? Oh my god, I am invisible, Maria can’t see me anymore! Oh no wait! She saw me! Okay I am still here, yey! Okay quick before I disappear again, Maria can you tidy up the Lego?”
“Ooooooh noooooo! Have the hands stopped working? Yes they have! Look theyre all floppy! That’s why you cant put your shoes on they are not working!! Oh dear oh dear… I think this means I can now tickle you and you cannot stop me! Aha!! Your hands work again!! YEY! Teddy, can you put your shoes on?”
6. Let Some Of It Go
Often as parents we worry that if we do too much for our child or are ‘too lenient’ then we will be making a rod for our back and will have to keep putting their shoes on until they are 18!
However – there are times when your child ‘listening’ to you comes at the expense of time and/or your relationship with them. In some situations it may be easier to just do it yourself or alongside them to get the task done. Let some of it go – I promise you won’t be building a rod for your own back.
Give yourself permission to put on your child’s shoes or help them with one while they put on the other.
Give yourself permission to tidy up toys and help them in the task or do it yourself if it’s late in the evening and you want to get your ‘adult’ space back.
Allow your child to forget to say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’. Instead, model the thank you or please yourself and show them how even in a rush you have time to acknowledge others.
7. Role Play
I talk about play a lot as an activity that is essential to your child’s development and helps them learn. Playing with your child is also an opportunity for them to HAVE CONTROL of the play that happens and for you to be the one who listens and follows their rules.
Use role play as a medium to help your child experiment with the role of being the powerful adult and what it is like when you say ‘no’ or cannot follow their instructions. It also helps you show empathy and compassion for how hard it is to be a child.
Some Final Thoughts
“Not listening” is often a wake-up call for us. Although it might feel like defiance or inattention, most of the time it is your child’s way to get your attention or express a need for some control and agency in the situation.
If you have tried the tips above and do not find that it is helping with cooperation or if you are feeling that power struggles like not listening are creating stress in your family, I would love to help you with this.
If you think you may benefit from a consultation you can book a 20min quick chat to think about whether working together long term would be a good option for you or I can signpost to an appropriate place, or book a 1 hour slot to Pick My Brains and talk through what you are experiencing in more depth and begin to get some tailored support for your family.