How do I get my child to listen to me?
“How do I get my child to listen to me?” – and it’s many variations – might just be the most frequent question I get asked by parents. And I get it. Saying the same thing over and over. Repeated requests that seem to fall on deaf ears. Needing to yell before anyone does what you ask. It’s frustrating!
But our kids brains are not the same as ours, and their priorities are also not the same as ours. So getting them to listen to us requires a little more than just yelling out an instruction across the room and then expecting them to immediately comply.
Getting them to listen to us is also not really the goal. Because let’s face it, their listening skills are probably just fine. What you’re really asking, and what we’re really talking about here, is how you get our child to co-operate with you. How you get your child to follow your lead (and your instructions!).
So next time you find yourself asking, “How do I get my child to listen to me?” I want you to instead ask yourself, “How do I make it easy for my child to co-operate with me?”
And then I want you to try these 6 strategies to help you improve your child’s willingness to cooperate.
6 strategies for improving cooperation from your child
1. See it from their point of view
Before you ask something of your child, I want you to consider their point of view, and their current priorities. Before you place a demand on your child, ask yourself these 4 questions:
- Are they engaged in an activity of their own?
- Is that activity important to them?
- Is your request really necessary? And…
- Is it necessary right now at this very moment?
Let’s think of it like this: If you were engaged in an activity you really enjoyed and your partner demanded that you stop right now to help them with something that you didn’t enjoy or that wasn’t important to you, how would you likely react? Would you immediately jump up, willing and eager to comply? Or would you tune them out, try to ignore them, avoid doing what they asked so you could continue with your (much more enjoyable) activity, or ask them to wait until you were finished? Why would your children be any different?
Children do not share our priorities. And nor would we expect them to – they are children. They are allowed to dislike our rules and push back against our boundaries and complain about our limits. It is their job. Just as it is our job to set those limits. But that doesn’t mean we have to completely disregard their feelings, opinions and desires in the process.
2. Remain calm
Children not listening to instructions is a huge trigger for many parents. It causes us to feel stressed and angry. And then we yell. And then we keep yelling because it seems to be the only thing that works to get our children to ‘listen’ to us. Ultimately though, what we do when we consistently yell in this way, is we teach our children to NOT listen to us UNTIL we start yelling. What they learn is that mum or dad isn’t really serious until they begin to yell. And so the cycle continues.
Now, it’s perfectly normal to feel frustrated when someone doesn’t listen to you. And becoming triggered by feeling unheard often stems from your own childhood. If you felt like you didn’t have a voice when you were young, then feeling as though your voice is being unheard now as an adult, is going to bring up all of those feelings from childhood again.
But just because you feel triggered, doesn’t mean you have to react. If you are able to take a few deep breaths and calm yourself before reacting, then you can choose how to respond to your children and eventually, break the cycle of yelling to be heard.
3. Connect and then correct
Many parents start talking to their children before they have their full attention. When children are already engaged in an activity, they need a chance to shift their attention from that activity, to you. This actually requires a lot of effort and places a large demand on the young, still developing brain. So before you start talking to your child, be sure you have their attention, and focus on connecting with them before anything else.
Get down to their level. Make eye contact. Place a loving hand on their shoulder. And most importantly, acknowledge what they’re doing. Showing respect for and interest in, their interests – and the things that are important to them – helps them feel connected to you and means they’ll be more willing to follow your lead. Something like, “Wow, that looks like fun!” Or, “You look like you’re really enjoying that game. Tell me more about it” is a simple way to connect with your child over their interests.
And then, if you do need to set that boundary, do it with empathy. Acknowledge that they are enjoying themselves right now, and that it’s hard to stop. Try something like, “You’re really enjoying this game, huh?! I know it’s hard to stop playing. I need you to….”
4. Less demands, more questions
Now I want to be really clear here. When I say questions, I don’t mean: “Would you like to put your shoes on?” Or, “Would you like to clean your room?” In fact, if we want to improve co-operation, asking questions that give our kids the option to say no, is NOT going to be effective, unless no is an answer we’d be happy to hear. So if what you’re asking is not really optional, then don’t give them the option to say no!
That being said, making demands of our children like, “Go and put your shoes on!” may not be useful either. Especially if they’re already feeling stressed or overwhelmed, or they’ve already received lots of instructions like this during their day! In that situation, one more demand could be all it takes to tip them over the edge into meltdown city. Instead, a question like, “We’re about to go to the park, what do you need on your feet?” will probably be more effective.
Asking a question like this puts your child in charge. It engages them and invites co-operation, rather than demanding it. It also activates the thinking brain. And when the thinking brain is in charge, the brain feels safe. Which means no meltdowns.
5. Give them choices
Again, I’m not talking about choices you don’t want them to make here. If what you’re asking your child to do is not optional, then that’s not a choice you can give them. But think about which choices you CAN give them in the situation. Children like to feel in control of their lives, just as us adults do. In fact, they NEED to feel in control. And you can fill your child’s power bucket by allowing them to make decisions and have agency over their lives where possible. Here are some examples you can try:
- “Would you like to pack away your toys before or after lunch?”
- “It’s time to get dressed, would you like to put your shirt or your pants on first?”
- “Would you like a sandwich or pasta for lunch?”
- “Do you want to get in the bath now, or in 5 minutes?”
- “Would you like a shower or a bath tonight?”
It’s important that we offer children choices that are safe and consistent with our boundaries. Both options we provide need to be appropriate. Because no matter what they choose, we want the task to be completed!
6. Make it fun!
The last way we can encourage co-operation from our children is through play – the ultimate form of connection! Before you start barking commands at your kids, think about whether there’s a way to make it fun! Can you have a race to see who can finish the task first? Could you put on some music and dance your way to the bathroom? Can the toys fly into the toy box? Or could your child’s teddy bear give them their instructions?
There are so many ways to turn otherwise boring and mundane tasks into opportunities for fun and connection with your child. My kids always loved to play what they called the “Ghost Game”. They would pick up a few things off the floor while we weren’t looking, and then hide somewhere in the room when their dad and I returned, wondering aloud whether the ghosts had been cleaning our house again! This strategy always resulted in fits of laughter and was much more enjoyable for us than nagging and yelling, too!
Ultimately, what these strategies all boil down to is one important thing: CONNECTION. The answer to, “How do I get my child to listen to me?” is always: connect with them first.
Because no one likes to be bossed around or controlled. Not adults. And not children. Traditional parenting models tell us that children should simply do what we want when we want it. But no one wants to do something for someone they don’t feel appreciated by, connected to, or respected by. And when we insist on holding firm to this belief that children should do what we say no matter what, we miss out on important opportunities to connect with and enjoy our children. A focus on connection will ALWAYS result in better cooperation from our children, and ultimately a better relationship WITH them too.
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.