If there were a list of the most common complaints adults have about children, surely, not listening would be near the top. "He just doesn't listen" may be one of the most common things I hear parents say. I've been there too: what parent hasn't felt the frustration of seeing their child still barefoot after asking multiple times to get ready to leave? But what we call "not listening" is often a matter of not cooperating. It is a rare child that doesn't listen when you ask who wants dessert. Instead, what we often mean is that children are not complying with our requests.

Difficulties with following directions often stem from three general, overlapping sources: matching our expectations to our child's developmental readiness, giving directions effectively, and connecting with our child. Let's consider each of these, in turn.

The Developmental "Match": We often give children a hard time paying attention, but children actually pay deep attention to whatever task that they are involved in. This makes it harder, then, to stop and switch tasks. Imagine being deeply focused on a project when your boss or partner asks you to suddenly stop and do something else. We can empathize with the difficulty of what we require of children all the time. Mentally, it takes a lot of control to be able to stop what they're doing, hear what is requested, and then remember and follow through on what is being asked. Sometimes, children struggle to follow directions because they need more support and guidance to be able to do what is expected.

This is related to the second point: effective direction-giving.

Common pitfalls parents face include:

  • Giving directions that are too complicated, "talking too much" or giving overly detailed explanations
  • Giving directions in ways that are harsh or that trigger upset in children, which makes it hard for them to comply
  • "Pleading" or talking in ways that suggest the directions are suggestions, with the underlying message that the parent is not in charge
  • Giving vague directions that children are not sure how to follow
  • Repeating directions in quick succession
  • Quickly resorting to threats of consequences, with or without following through on these
  • Giving directions and then "changing your mind", that is, giving up and not following through

To help children listen, first, slow down.

Take time to notice what they are currently doing or focused on. Make sure you have their attention by getting physically close, putting a hand on their shoulder or making eye contact, and connecting with them in what they're doing at the moment. "You're having fun playing with Legos. What a cool tower you're building! We'll be leaving for Grandma's soon. What do you want to finish to be ready to put down the Legos for now?" Younger children especially benefit from support in stopping the task they're on by thinking through how they want to wrap up.

Keep directions simple and to the point. Be specific in what you're asking: children may need support in being able to identify "next steps" that are second nature to us. State directions positively - that is, tell your child exactly what you want them to do. Instead of "stop running” say "Please come sit next to me"; instead of "Get ready”, say, "Let's go get your shoes from the closet." Specific, positively-stated directions are much easier for children to follow.

Give the direction and wait. Children process information slower than adults, so we often have to be patient to allow the direction to sink in. Be sure to praise and appreciate when your child follows through. If your child does not cooperate after several seconds or starts to protest, you may validate their feelings instead of arguing against them, while still holding to your boundary. You can say, "I get it, you're having a lot of fun and it's hard to leave. That makes sense." Then, offer them an option: "Do you want to walk like a penguin to go get your shoes, or jump like a frog?" Or, "Would you rather go by yourself, or would you like me to walk with you to get your shoes on?" Like in this example, it helps to keep things playful and positive. Children are very attuned to our moods and energy. If we start our directions with harshness or stress, children are likely to react to this and it often shuts them down or makes them upset.

Connection as Foundation for Cooperation:  Sometimes, difficulty with cooperation reflects children not feeling securely connected with a parent. Sometimes, parents and children get in negative cycles where children do not comply until parents escalate to upset, and while it may eventually work in the short term, in the long term, it impacts connection and makes children less likely to cooperate in the future. If your child not only struggles with not following directions but also often becomes angry and defiant, this may apply. Working intentionally on our connection with our children not only eases day-to-day struggles but is important for our children's and families' long-term health and happiness. Taking five minutes a day to engage in special, one-on-one playtime with your child is a powerful strategy to work on this. For tips on how to connect with your child through play, check out this article on play in our monthly blog!

The ability to comply with requests is a complex skill, and no child does this perfectly. When children don't listen, it often "pushes our buttons" as parents. Try to remember they are not doing this "at" you or to purposefully upset you. Instead, they might just need some additional help and support to be able to follow directions well. Look for and praise progress in this skill, and remember we'll figure this out together.

Dr. E’s Mental Health Moment is written by Elizabeth Conway Williams Ph.D., psychologist, and behavioral health provider with Hendersonville Pediatrics.