There are many reasons your child may be struggling to listen — and many ways that you can help them become a better listener.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged by all parents: Sometimes, your child doesn’t (or won’t) listen to you.
While these moments can be frustrating, there’s likely a good reason why your child struggles to listen. They may be overwhelmed by what you’re telling them to do. Or maybe they’re doing it to get a reaction.
Difficulty listening to or following directions can also be a symptom of a mental health disorder, such as attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD).
No matter the cause, there are many ways to actively help your child improve their listening skills.
There are several reasons your kid may not be listening.
They want to assert themselves
Being a child means exploring the world and your identity in it. As they navigate the ins and outs of growing up, they may start to push boundaries as they develop a sense of self.
Your child may be trying to assert power or control, which is something children have very little of. Your child may also be trying to get a reaction from you. It’s important to show them that not listening affects them more than it does you.
Something else has their attention
Your child may not be listening to you simply because they’re focused on something else. This could be:
- watching TV
- participating in their favorite activity
- engaging with friends
It’s important not to assume that their attention can be easily divided when they’re “in the zone” doing something else.
They feel criticized
People of all ages often don’t respond well to criticism or negativity. Your child is more likely to tune you out if they feel judged or that they did something bad or wrong. Children may also have a hard time listening if they feel unheard or if their feelings have been minimized or invalidated.
You’re saying too much
Sometimes, your child may “tune you out” simply because you’re throwing too much at them at once, which can be overwhelming.
Rather than try to process several demands or expectations, or multiple pieces of information, they may choose to seem like they’re not listening at all.
It may be helpful to keep your requests short and specific to help your child better understand what you’re asking of them.
Kids may not have the same responsibilities as adults, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a lot on their plates. When a parent asks too much of a child at once, they may become overwhelmed and shut down.
Your words and actions don’t match
If you say one thing but do another, your child may not feel like they need to listen to you. A common one is enforcing consequences, like taking away access to video games, but giving them back when a child has a big reaction to having them taken away.
It’s essential to follow through on consequences to show your child that listening matters.
There may be a physical barrier
It’s possible that while your child wants to listen to you, they physically can’t. This could result from hearing loss, wax buildup affecting hearing, or even an auditory processing disorder.
If you suspect your child can’t hear properly, consider making an appointment with a pediatrician to evaluate their hearing.
They may listen differently as they age
You might also notice changes in your child’s listening behavior as they age. For example, they may make less eye contact or give you less verbal cues that they are listening as they grow up.
Young children are still learning about their world and what boundaries may be in place. It may be helpful to model positive habits and reinforce what behaviors are or are not appropriate or acceptable.
Older children and teens are at a stage where they’re learning to establish their sense of independence. You may find it more challenging to get them to listen as they develop their decision-making skills.
Teenagers also face high levels of stress from school, social interactions, and extracurricular activities, which can make them distractible and thus can cause struggles with listening.
They may have a mental health condition
For some children, difficulty listening is a symptom of a mental health condition, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that can make it difficult to pay attention.
It often develops in childhood, affecting roughly 2% to 7% of all kids.
In addition to experiencing difficulty listening, children with ADHD may:
- have a short attention span
- have difficulty sitting still or fidget
- be easily distracted
- lose or forget things
- talk a lot
- engage in risky behaviors
- interrupt others
- have trouble following directions
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There are several strategies you may consider trying to help your child become a better listener:
- Be specific. Setting lofty expectations or asking for too much at once can be confusing. Instead, it may be more helpful to be concise and specific when asking your child for something. Try using simple wording and asking for one thing at a time.
- Mirror habits. Your children are always watching you, and their actions are often a reflection of your own. If you don’t listen, they may not either. By actively choosing positive behaviors, you may find that your child engages in actions that mirror yours.
- Be patient. Developing listening skills takes time. It’s a good idea to consider the importance of being patient with your child as they learn what is and isn’t appropriate. Try showing them that it’s okay if they stumble. Encouraging them to continue working toward improving their listening abilities, rather than getting impatient or upset with them, may also be helpful.
- Stay calm. Try to avoid getting worked up when your child doesn’t listen. Getting upset, angry, or yelling at your child may cause them to potentially repeat the behavior. Many kids may feel criticized when yelled at, leading them to shut down and stop engaging.
- Praise good behaviors. Consider providing positive reinforcement when your child does what you tell them. This may make them want to repeat the good behavior. On the flip side, it’s important to provide encouragement when they struggle, rather than give them negative feedback. When they see their efforts being cheered on, they’ll want to continue working toward success.
- Listen to them. When a child feels like you don’t listen to them, they can sometimes respond by not wanting to listen to you.
Building a positive relationship between you and your child can also help them listen better. This can involve establishing an open dialogue and creating mutual respect by really taking in what they have to say.
When a child feels supported by their parents and their voice and actions matter, they’ll make sure that they do their part to maintain the dynamic — including engaging in positive listening behaviors.
Some children may may have a harder time with this than others, and extra effort may be needed to guide them toward improved listening habits.
In these cases, you may want to consider seeking the support of a mental health professional, such as a family counselor or psychotherapist, to uncover what may be causing your child’s challenges with listening.
Some parents may turn to punishment when other approaches aren’t working, including all forms of corporal punishment and yelling at or shaming children. However, 2018 research suggests that this approach may reinforce negative behaviors rather than stop them.
Unlike punishment, where a child may be yelled at, grounded, or reprimanded for not listening, positive discipline may involve guiding your child toward better listening behaviors.
This may help them develop responsible and respectful habits that can help them not only with their listening skills but with other aspects of their development.
Common positive discipline strategies include:
Consider taking time to praise good listening behavior rather than signaling out when they’re not listening. This can help your child become a better listener, and can look like:
- naming that you like the way your child is listening
- giving a hug or high-five
- doing something your child enjoys
Young children, in particular, respond well to this approach.
Some 2020 research suggests that positive reinforcement supports young children’s use of appropriate behaviors and skills.
Poor behavior is often a result of boredom, defiance, or simply not understanding how to respond appropriately.
Redirection can be a tool for steering these negative behaviors toward positive ones.
Some examples might be verbal redirection, such as telling a child to stop a specific behavior and explaining what acceptable behavior looks like, and physical redirection, like adding gentle touch.
Too many words can distract some children, making it hard to follow directions.
Instead, you may find it more beneficial to use single-word reminders to reinforce what you’re asking of your child.
Set specific expectations
Much like one-word reminders, specificity is key when coping with a child who doesn’t listen.
You may find it helpful to provide specific and direct expectations to prevent miscommunication. This is an especially important approach for teens, who often need clear boundaries and expectations.
Praising strong listening skills is essential, but so is encouraging your child’s efforts — even when they may fall short.
It can take time to hone good listening skills, and cheering your child on as they make progress can help them want to become a better listener, rather than giving up.
There are many reasons your kid may not be listening to you. Maybe their focus is elsewhere or they’re trying to get a rise out of you. They could also be overwhelmed and not understand what you’re asking of them.
Understanding why they’re struggling to listen may help you guide them toward more positive listening behaviors.
To help your child become a better listener you may find it helpful to be specific in your requests, model positive behaviors, and provide praise and encouragement.
You might also consider seeking support from a professional, such as a counselor or therapist.
At the end of the day, it’s important to remember: Being a kid is hard. They’re still learning who they are, both within themselves and in the world.
It’s a good idea to have patience with your child and give yourself grace as you help them navigate the journey of growing up.