7 Things You Should Do When Your Child Ignores You

Teach your child to listen the first time you speak

It’s infuriating when a child doesn’t listen to directions. And if you’re pressed for time—and he won’t budge—it can be especially frustrating.

Ignoring your requests and tuning out your instructions isn’t acceptable. It’s important to teach your child to listen to you the first time you speak. Otherwise, ignoring your requests could become a common habit.

Whether you get no reply when you tell your child it’s time to come inside, or your child acts like he doesn’t hear you when you tell him to pick up his toys, take action. Here are seven steps you should take when your child ignores you.

1
Eliminate Distractions

Get your child's attention before you give instructions.
Jamie Grill Photography / Getty Images

It’s important to distinguish between willful defiance and simply not hearing you. If you yell to your child when he’s playing video games in the other room, he might be too engrossed in his game to hear you call him. Or, if you tell him to put his bike away when he’s zooming past the driveway he might not catch what you have to say.

So before you give him instructions, get rid of all distractions. Turn off the TV, call his name and establish eye contact. You might even need to put a hand on his shoulder.

Then, give him clear directions that outline what you want him to do. Keep it short and simple by saying something like, “Pick your toys up, please.” Skip the lecture and use a firm but neutral tone of voice.

2
Ask Your Child to Repeat Your Instructions

Ensure your child understands what you said by asking him to repeat back your instructions. Ask, “OK, so what are you supposed to do now?” and wait for him to explain, “I’m supposed to put on my play clothes so I can help you rake the lawn.”

Offer clarification or ask if he has any questions. If your child can repeat back to you what he’s supposed to do, you’ll know your expectations are clear.

3
Give One Warning

After you’ve given you child instructions—and you’re sure he understands—wait about five seconds. It may take a little time for the information to sink in. But, if he doesn’t make any attempts to follow through with your command, he’s ignoring you.

Give him an if…then warning. Say something like, “If you don’t go upstairs and start cleaning your room right now, then you won’t be able to play on the computer tonight.”  Spend a minute thinking about the consequence you warn your child about and make sure it is something you’re really prepared to do if he doesn’t comply.

Use the same approach even if your child doesn’t ignore you completely. If he says something like, “I know!” or “I’ll do it in a minute,” give him a warning. Teach him that he needs to follow your instructions when you give them, not according to his own schedule.

4
Follow Through With a Consequence

Wait another five seconds or so after you’ve given a warning. If your child makes no attempt to do what you’ve asked, follow through with a consequence.

Try taking away a privilege, like your child’s favorite toy or his electronics. Just make sure you take those privileges away for a short period of time. Threatening to throw his tablet in the garbage isn’t likely to improve his behavior. Instead, take away electronics for the rest of the day.

5
Create a Plan to Address the Problem

If your child ignores your requests often, create a plan to address the problem.  Make your expectations known by saying, “I expect you to follow my directions the first time I give them to you.” Then, tell him you notice he’s having trouble listening and you’re going to need to work on that.

For some children, praise and positive attention for good behavior are enough to motivate them to keep up the good work.  So if you point out to your child, “Great job shutting the TV off right when I asked you to,” he might be more motivated to do it again.

Other kids need a bigger incentive to follow directions. Consider a reward system or a token economy system to motivate your child to be more compliant.

6
Rule Out Underlying Problems

If your child’s refusal to listen is a problem in more than one environment—like he doesn’t listen at home or at school—it’s important to rule out underlying problems. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Could he have a hearing problem? Get your child’s hearing checked if he seems to have trouble hearing you or understanding your directions.
  • Does your child have trouble with his attention span? If your child is so focused on what he’s doing that he doesn’t hear you, or if he can’t focus long enough to follow through with what you’ve said, he might have an underlying problem like ADHD.
  • Does your child have a cognitive issue? Developmental problems or cognitive impairments may make it difficult for a child to process information and take action in a short amount of time.

If you suspect your child may have an underlying medical or mental health issue, talk to the pediatrician. It’s important to rule out those issues before you create a plan to address the problem.

7
Avoid the Traps That Could Encourage Your Child to Tune You Out

Sometimes, parents inadvertently train kids to ignore them. Yelling, nagging, and begging are a few things that will cause your child to ignore you. Lengthy lectures and giving too many commands will also cause your child to stop listening.

Reserve your instructions for the most important issues you want to address. And stick to a single warning, as repeat warnings will teach your child he doesn’t have to listen the first time you speak.

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