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Five Tips to Get Kids to Listen

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We’ve all been there.

You’ve given a direction to your kid. Put the tablet away. Put on your shoes. Help with the dishes. Time for bed. Get your backpack… But it isn’t the first time you’ve given it. Or even the second. Or third. You’ve repeated this same direction over and over and your kid either doesn’t hear or doesn’t care. And now you are getting frustrated and acting like the parent you never intended to become. You want to change it, but don’t know how. You’ve got this. There are some simple things you can do to turn this around.

While some children with attention deficits, autism spectrum disorder, or certain forms of anxiety have little control over how well they are able to focus and listen the first time, for most kids the lack of listening is more like a habit. And all habits are hard to break. When you help them to listen you are really helping them break an old habit and learn a new one, so be patient and be persistent. What follows are five tricks you can use as a parent to get your kid to listen the first time:

  1. Understand why it’s habit-forming – things are habit forming when they are rewarding. Why is not listening to you rewarding? The obvious answer happens to be the correct one: avoidance. Kids are the ultimate day-traders. They are short-term thinkers in a very literal sense. Like, a minute into the future short-term thinkers. When you are giving a direction it is usually to do something the child doesn’t want to do. By ignoring the direction the kid is avoiding the thing they don’t want to do at least for a minute more. Anything much beyond that is not something they think about unless they are older. If they are in the middle of a preferred activity, like screen time, then it is even more rewarding to ignore your direction. If you understand the reward, you won’t take it so personally. That means you won’t get so upset. And that brings us to tip number two…
  2. Understand the hidden reward – For kids, positive and negative attention are almost equally valued, with positive attention having a very slight advantage. As a kid ignores, their parent gets irritated and consequently, more attentive. Avoiding what they don’t want to do AND getting more attention? That is a win-win!
  3. Don’t phrase a direction as a question – we adults don’t want to bossed around. So when we give directions we try not to be bossy, and that often means we phrase directions in the form of questions. “Why don’t you have a seat?” “Would you like to put that away?” “How about you clean up your room?” This is well-intentioned. But for literal little kids they may get confused and think that they have a choice when in reality they do not. And for crafty older kids they may point out that they are not disobeying you, they are just answering the question with a “no.” Keep this from happening by starting directions with something like “Please do…”
  4. Tell children what you want them to do instead of what you want them to stop doing – It is a subtle but important distinction. If you give a direction that starts with “don’t,” stop,” or “quit,” like “stop jumping on the couch,” the problem is that the child doesn’t know what behavior you want instead. They may not listen because it isn’t clear what they should do. So you want to replace their negative behavior with a positive one by replacing your negative direction with a positive one. Positive directions usually start with phrases just like those in the last tip: “Please do…” For example, “Please sit on the couch.”
  5. Keep your cool – One reason kids ignore is that they become conditioned to listen only once you’ve lost your temper. They wait for the tone that says you really mean it. But if you stay calm, phrase your direction as a direction instead of question, and make sure it’s positive, then you increase the odds that they’ll listen. This is especially true if you keep your cool and give a consequence for not listening. THIS WILL BLOW THEIR MIND. If you calmly tell them that since you’ve told them three times to set the table and they didn’t listen they will lose screen time for a day, they will realize that your tone is no longer of barometer of when they should pay attention. It needs to be the first time, because you meant it even when you were calm.

These five tips are not a guarantee, but in my years of clinical experience I’ve found that if parents can master these five tips they get much better results when they need their kid to listen. Try them out yourself and let me know how they work for you in the comments below.

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