How To Get Your Child To Listen

Before you shout, learn simple skills to ensure you have your child's attention

Child Psychologist / July 04 2016

It is funny though, even though we generally know that it is a listening problem, we often keep repeating the same thing over and over again. We forlornly hope that uninterested or distracted children will miraculously decide that it is worthwhile listening. In reality, most kids have learnt that they actually don’t need to try to listen, as a loving parent will repeat it enough times until they feel like listening. Children learn that they don’t need to listen and respond, until that loving parent actually starts yelling in desperation.   


Skills for all ears


The good news is that poor listening skills can be remedied. It often means that parents need to modify the environment and adopt consistent management strategies.


Often poor listeners live in either noisy or too-stimulating environments. This is more common in today’s society, where we are surrounded by devices, gadgets and white noise. Begin by turning off some of your entertainment devices so that there is less background noise and ensure that your child is not distracted by some form of screen.    


The next step is to avoid talking from a distance or repeating unheard messages. Instead, go to your child, get down to his level and make good eye contact. If your kid is distracted, block his attention to the distracting element, such as the iPad or television. Also, try to be animated and clear so that he has little option but to listen.


Positive learning


Younger kids need cueing in, either by verbal or tactile means. A verbal command, such as using your child's name and giving a verbal ‘listening’ prompt, or touching your child, conditions him towards good listening. A common mistake is to just expect good listening. However, as with most parenting, kids always respond better and learn skills more effectively when they are given genuine praise, recognition and affection. This can simply be an engaging smile, warm feedback and positive praise for being a good listener.


Another common mistake is to keep repeating verbal messages until your toddler decides to listen and respond. It’s more effective to adopt a consistent process, such as only repeating verbal messages a maximum of three times before taking action. Very few children will naturally adopt a ‘listen and do the first time I’m told’ approach. They often need one or two reminders. A good basic process is ask, request and remind, then take action. This does require the difficult challenge of being firm, such as removing toys by the third reminder -despite the impending tantrum.


Less is more


Most parents tend to talk more and be somewhat verbose when children don’t listen. However, this could potentially confuse a child who doesn’t have good receptive language or early auditory processing skills. Therefore, a good hint is to be simple, direct and brief.


If you are not sure if your child can understand and orally comprehend when you ask him to pack up or get ready for bath-time, try this little trick: use the same language to offer a special treat or activity.


Hearing problems


We need to be aware that poor listening skills in a child can be a sign of hearing impairment, which affects less than two per cent of kids. Kids with medical problems like glue ear, repetitive ear infections and sinus congestion are more prone to occasional hearing difficulty. However, these children tend to be more inconsistent poor listeners. Similarly, kids with early speech problems might possibly have a hearing problem. Children who have been exposed to illnesses, such as measles, whooping cough and mumps are more prone to hearing loss. Kids who turn up the volume very high, who listen when you face them (focusing more on your lips), but who don’t appear to listen when you are close behind them, may have a hearing difficulty. In any such cases, visit your family doctor for a quick check-up, possibly followed by formal hearing assessment. Fortunately, a good majority of childhood hearing difficulties respond very well to treatment and intervention.   


In most cases, an actual hearing difficulty is not the cause. Children will usually respond well when we keep it simple, short and engaging. In time, poor listeners become good at hearing with consistency and positive recognition.