There’s nothing more frustrating than a child who zones out when you need them to pay attention to what you’re saying. “We can all relate to moments when our patience has run out and we’ve resorted to shouting or giving in and doing the requested task ourselves,’ says Joanna Kleovoulou, clinical psychologist and founder of PsychMatters Centre in Johannesburg.
“Not listening or co-operating can create a lot of frustration and has a ripple effect on the harmony at home. But before running off for professional guidance about your ‘naughty’ child who refuses to listen, make sure they have a hearing test to rule out any physiological and/or neurological difficulties that may need to be addressed to enable them to hear,” she says.
“Glue ear, for example, can affect your child’s ability to hear and therefore, their ability to listen and learn. This was the case with a little boy who came to see me for play therapy. He was experiencing low self-esteem and performance anxiety at school because he was being labelled as the ‘ADD kid who doesn’t listen’. But once treated for this condition, he was a different child.”
How to talk to your child
There’s no doubt that children of all ages do switch off – or seem to have selective hearing, says Joanna, but the good news is listening is a skill that can be harnessed.
“Remember, the younger your child, the less able they are to keep focused on your requests. They’ll also find it difficult to move their attention from one task to the next. This doesn’t mean they’re not good listeners – it’s simply a skill that develops over time. But, in order to create a habit of them paying attention, you need to be mindful of how you talk to your child and how you communicate as a family.”
There are 3 ways of communicating to get your child to listen and respond:
- The aggressive way is yelling, labelling and putting your child down. However, naming and shaming – ‘You’re acting like a real baby’ – is belittling, humiliating and breaks down your child’s self-esteem. It may get their attention but it’s problematic as it contributes to a dysfunctional pattern of communication. It also results in them acting out, ignoring you, becoming defiant, yelling back or being fearful of you.
- The passive way of communicating uses soft words and often gives unclear messages. This creates a child who will overrule you, and eventually, with the constant lack of their response, will result in escalating your anger.
- The assertive way of communicating – using a clear, concise, warm, yet a firm approach – is the most effective. This builds the relationship as your child feels heard and respected and thus, gets them to listen.
Make yourself heard
The key component in getting a child to hear what you have to say is for you to demonstrate that you’re a good listener too, says educational psychologist Zaakirah Mohamed, also from PsychMatters Centre. She offers the following tips:
- Role model good listening skills. If your child feels you don’t listen, they’ll tend to do the same when the roles are reversed. Unfortunately, they’ll often choose to tell you something really important at the most inconvenient times! If you dismiss them, they’ll feel you’re uninterested and that their feelings don’t matter. So, make a point of stopping what you’re doing and listen to them if they mention any difficulties, or seem distressed. If, however, you can’t do so immediately, acknowledge them by saying, “I can see that you need to talk to me about something that’s important to you. Can you give me 5 minutes to finish what I’m doing so I can give you all of my attention”’ If you shout or say you’re too busy, you’re sending the message it’s acceptable to be ignored or, to yell when you don’t want to do something.
- Get down to their level. Always kneel and talk to your young child at eye level. Never give messages when you’re not right in front of them. For an older child, it’s important to maintain eye contact. You can also reinforce what you’re saying by gently touching an arm or hand.
- Watch your words. Don’t talk too much: keep the message clear, simple and to the point. Maintain a firm but warm tone when you want something to be done immediately. For example, say, “Please put on your shoes, now”. Check to see if they’ve heard and understood what you’ve said by asking them to repeat it to you.
- Explore why you’re being ignored. Remember, smaller children are easily distracted and at times, don’t follow an order. This is not because they don’t want to and so choose to ignore you, but rather, it’s because they never heard it in the first place. However, there are times when your child will purposely ignore you because they’re testing their limits. There are reasons for this: they may feel unheard so they’re doing the same to you or they may be needing attention, whether positive or negative. Therefore, finding out the reason why they are not listening is more important than punishing them.
- Practise empathy when your child isn’t listening as this shows that you’re respectful of their feelings. For example, when they want to watch a TV show and the stipulated time is finished, try saying, “I can see that you’re really upset that you’re missing out on a show you enjoy, but remember the rules.”
- Always praise your child because positive reinforcement goes a long way. Acknowledge their attention and for following your instruction. Say, “Thank you Natalie/Simon for listening and picking up your toys – that was so helpful.”
More about the experts:
Joanna Kleovoulou is a registered clinical psychologist, workshop facilitator, speaker and founder of PsychMatters Centre™ in Johannesburg. She is passionate about empowering both children and adults to live their lives more masterfully. Her areas of clinical interest include play therapy, individual and couples counselling and through workshops, addressing a wide range of psychiatric disorders such as trauma, bereavement/loss, depression, anxiety disorders, self-esteem and stress at all ages. Learn more about Joanna Kleavoulou here.
Zaakirah Mohamed is a registered educational psychologist working in private practice and part time at Harambee Youth Employment Accelarator. Her field of interest has always been learning disabilities and school readiness. She has completed her honours research on “Teachers’ perceptions of LD”, which was published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Mental Health. Learn more about Zaakirah Mohamed here.
Lynne is a freelance journalist and content writer who has worked in the
magazine industry for many years. A regular contributor to Living & Loving,
her main passions are people and health. She holds the Pfizer Mental Health
Journalism award for 2012/2013 and specializes in lifestyle and wellness
topics for both the print and digital worlds.