This is one of the most common questions I get in parent consultations. As parents, we seem to repeat ourselves a hundred times a day. Why don’t children hear us? Of course, by “hear us”, we mean “obey” our requests, right? Let’s break down this issue into two separate parts: “hearing” us and actually “complying” with our requests.
Young children tend not to respond to a parent or caregiver unless you’ve gotten their attention first. Are you shouting at them from another room? Calling to them from the kitchen? Standing behind them while they’re engrossed in play or watching TV? Yelling across the playground? Doing something else while trying to get their attention? (i.e. checking e-mail, answering the phone, getting yourself ready in the morning, putting a sibling to bed, feeding the dog.)
For most effective listening, you need a child’s full attention. That may mean getting down to their eye level, lightly touching their shoulder, being involved in their play either at home or on the playground. It may help to start with a positive comment. “You’re building a great tower there! Soon, it’s going to be dinnertime.” “Wow! You made it down the big slide! Do you want to do the slide again or the swing one more time before we leave the park?” “You got your shirt on all by yourself! I’m going to start breakfast. Come join me when you’ve chosen what pants to wear too.”
OK. Let’s talk about non-compliance for a moment. Your child is not trying to make you angry. He or she simply has an agenda that may be different from yours. It’s our job to figure out what is stopping them from complying with our request. Are they feeling rushed? It might help to remember that children have a much slower processing speed than you think. State your request, than give them time to comply. With young children, I often say, “I’m ready to pick you up now,” while holding out my arms to them. Then, I wait until they turn to me and hold out their arms as well.
When you see the world from your child’s point of view, you may begin to understand why they can’t “hear” and “obey” your every request. Young children are primarily focused on their own needs and wants. They need time to transition and prepare for change. They intuitively create their own daily agendas.
Think about the particular strategies that help you connect with your child when you’re not rushed or preoccupied. If you practice getting their full attention during play moments, you will be more adept at getting their attention during rushed transitions. Focus on strategies that work with your child’s particular temperament. Which strategies elicit the best response? Is it best if you moderate your voice, bend down for eye contact, touch your child’s shoulder, or involve yourself in their play? By connecting with your child first, you are more likely to encourage a cooperative response to your request.
Heidi Emberling, MA