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What Do I Do When My Child Won’t Listen?

Whether your kid’s a little angel or a little devil, chances are you’ve had at least one moment when your child doesn’t listen and does whatever the heck they want with no regard for you, others, or even themselves. Truth be told, these moments may happen more often that you’d like to admit, and you’re not alone. How to get kids to behave is one of those quintessential parenting questions, and it seems like everyone has an opinion on what works – spankings, groundings, giving consequences – but what really does? What are you actually supposed to do when you child won’t listen?

In HelloJoey’s “Consequences vs. Punishment,” you’ll learn more about what “not listening” actually is – and how to figure out your real goals behind getting your kid to behave. You’ll also hear from experts who explain how to use positive discipline tools – like active listening – so your kid doesn’t just listen to you, they learn to listen to that inner voice when it comes to doing what’s right or wrong.

Why do kids misbehave?

While it’s (usually) not true, it sometimes feels like your kid misbehaves for the sheer purpose of pushing your buttons. Your toddler throws pepperoni in your hair at the pizza parlor, your elementary schooler ignores your instructions and glues glitter all over the kitchen table, or your tween “forgets” to fold the laundry – leaving you with a mountain of wrinkled clothes to iron. Who are they kidding? They definitely did that on purpose!

When your kid doesn’t listen to you, it’s easy to take it personally – but most often, little kids act out because they have a need that isn’t being met. They might be hungry or tired or over-stimulated, but at this stage, your child’s emotional vocabulary isn’t developed enough to tell you what that need is, so they express it by screaming or whining. This can be true for older elementary school kids, too: You’re probably seen yours “hangry” or whirling through the house like a destructive tornado because they didn’t recognize the need to go outside and release some energy.

Once kids reach the preteen years, acting out is more likely part of the individuation process. As your child starts to figure who they are, it’s normal for them to push back against you and your values – and that can mean rejecting rules just for the sake of asserting their independence. Along with that, your kid is going through a ton of changes that affect cognitive skills like planning and impulse control. It’s sometimes called a “second toddlerhood,” and just like toddlers, they have trouble controlling themselves and anticipating cause and effect.

How can I make my kid listen?

If you’re like most parents, when you say, “My kid doesn’t listen,” what you actually mean is, “My kid doesn’t obey.” Still, that probably doesn’t stop you from yelling – as if getting louder actually might help your kid hear you better. In reality, it’s not that your kid isn’t hearing you; it may be that they don’t feel like you’re hearing them. Communication is a two-way street, and the more your child feels you’re not listening to them, the less inclined they may be to listen to you.

It can be a little hard to wrap your brain around this idea. After all, you’re the parent – but being the parent isn’t always about ordering around your child in the short-term; sometimes, it’s about taking the long view and teaching them how to make decisions that take others into consideration. With positive discipline tools like active listening, you can model how to be considerate – while also showing your child what it actually means to listen to someone else.

Actively listening is fairly straightforward, and you can give it a try following these four guidelines:

  • Focus on your child as they speak, cutting out distractions and really tuning in to what they’re saying.

  • Show you’re paying attention with body language like eye contact, nodding your head, or touching their shoulder.

  • Be responsive with phrases like, “uh-huh,” “What I think you’re saying is,” or, “It sounds like that made you feel.”

  • Keep your opinions to yourself and let your kid share their feelings without interruption or disagreement.

According to Meike Lemmens, a master trainer in P.E.T., actively listening can be very helpful when your child won’t behave. P.E.T. (Parent Effectiveness Training) is a school of discipline that invites kids to have a seat at the table so they can use their voices, and Meike explains that helping your child feel heard may be the first step toward resolving conflict. “To be able to really actively listen to your child – to tune in to what's going on with them – is a very difficult but very effective tool in lowering the resistance from children to work with you. Once you’re able to hear what they have to say, they’re usually more willing to help you with your problem.”

Should I punish a child who won’t listen?

When you think about discipline, punishments, and consequences, your personal goals will help you figure out the approach to take with your child. When you say you want your child to listen or you want them to behave, what does that mean? Do you want them to do what they’re told because they’re afraid of what will happen if they don’t? Are you trying to help them see how their behavior affects others? Do you want them to learn how to do what they think is right, even when you’re not around?

You probably don’t want to shame, punish, or hurt your child; you just want them to know how to act appropriately in different situations, to anticipate consequences, and to think about others when they make decisions. Positive discipline techniques – like logical consequences, problem solving, and setting limits – let you create interactions that help your kid to develop those skills. Instead of punishing a child who won’t listen, you show them why listening is important and what happens when they don’t.

That doesn’t mean your child gets off scot-free if they do something they shouldn’t; following through on consequences is a big part of helping kids learn cause and effect. It just means that you don’t punish out of anger; you teach out of empathy. Of course, this might be easier said that done when your kid breaks an antique lamp playing catch in the living room – but spanking them or sending them to their room won’t teach them how to take responsibility for their actions or why they should make a different choice next time as effectively as paying for the lamp (or finding another solution) will.

App Tip

Your child is mastering new skills every day, but they still have so much to learn. Little ones are still building their emotional vocabularies; older ones are still figuring out how to control their impulses. Even as an adult, it can be hard to change your behavior based on cause and effect: You know yelling won’t make your child listen to you (and may make them cry), but that doesn’t mean you won’t lose control and shout from time to time.

Thinking of discipline as a teaching tool can help you approach it with empathy. Your child will learn more by you listening to them and helping them understand their feelings than if you simply tell them what to do. You can use tools like active listening to help your kid express themselves and feel important in the world. It’s supportive and interactive – and it also allows you to model how to treat others, helping them grow into empathetic and self-controlled adults themselves.

Want to learn more about “Consequences vs. Punishment” and how to help your child learn to listen? Start your path to a solid parenting foundation in just 10 minutes a day. Check out the HelloJoey app.

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