Parenting with a PhD: Getting Kids to Listen

PARENT QUESTION: We are having serious issues right now with our girls not listening. How much leniency do you allow for their age (preschool)?

PARENTING WITH A PHD RESPONSE: Selective Hearing Loss, or “SHL,” is a serious condition that affects millions of kids every second. SHL can be made worse by situations like a messy room, being plugged in to a gaming device, or the presence of broccoli on the plate. There is no known cure for SHL but you can help reduce the occurrence for your children.

I joke. But, seriously – listening is a pretty major struggle between parents and kids, leading to a lot of tantrums, anger, and frustration (And, the kids get upset, too!). There are ways to increase the likelihood that your child will listen but, unfortunately, this can’t be accomplished through a magical pill. You may have to change how you’re giving commands and addressing the resulting misbehavior. Consider some of the following techniques:

Get Close: Unless you have one of those kids who is constantly eager to please (and you wouldn’t be writing this letter if you did), you need to be physically close to your child when you give her a command. In many cases, you need to put your face level with your child’s and make physical contact to direct her attention to you. When I need the attention of a child client, I’ll often instruct her, “Look at my nose.” This command is specific and points her gaze in the right direction. Also, she’s more likely to follow the instruction because looking at someone’s nose is silly and a novel concept. If this instruction doesn’t work, you may have to gently take your child’s face in your hands and guide it towards yours.

Reduce Distractions: Make sure that electronic devices are off or paused when you give commands and don’t expect to be heard in a loud or chaotic environment. Minimize internal distractions by waiting out a tantrum before you start giving commands. Otherwise, you run the risk of escalating the anger. Besides, you don’t have a prayer of your commands being heard when your child is really upset.

State Commands Positively: Tell your child exactly what you want him to do, using as few words as possible. Instead of, “Stop it! You’re making a huge mess that Mommy’s going to have to clean up!” say: “Draw only on the paper.” Sticking to the behaviors you want to see (e.g., “Keep your hand on the grocery cart while we shop”) instead of those you don’t (e.g., “No running around the grocery store!”) gives your child a very specific goal to shoot for and makes the behavior easier to keep track of and reward if you choose to do so. Avoid overly long explanations for the command. If you need to give a justification, it should go before the command as we discussed here.

Give Feedback: Often when our kids do follow directions, we fail to say anything because: A) We don’t want to clue them in that there’s an alternative to compliance (Pssst! They already know!) and B) We feel like we shouldn’t reward something the child was supposed to be doing anyway. Keep in mind that one important way children learn is through the consequences that follow their behavior. If failing to follow rules gets your attention but following rules does not, guess which one they’re going to choose? This same principal shapes adults’ behavior, as well. Would you be as likely to compliment your best friend, hold the door open for others, or take initiative at work if you never received positive feedback as a result? When your child follows a command, verbally reinforce him: “I love it when you listen the first time!” and avoiding adding any statement like: “Why can’t you do that every time??” You’d probably be a bit irritated if your spouse said, “You look great tonight!” (Pause). “Why can’t you put forth this much effort every day?” A backhanded compliment is not a compliment. When you’re trying to wrangle more than one child, giving praise to the one who is complying may help the other get in line as well. I don’t know many kids who are content to let their siblings hog all the praise.

Follow-up: Ever felt like putting another parent in time out for failing to discipline his child? Ever wanted to scream, “NO MORE CHANCES!” at the mother who continues repeating, “If you do that one more time, you’re in trouble!” Ever been guilty of failing to follow through yourself? Of course – we all have. You’re trying to get something accomplished (even with a crock pot, dinner doesn’t make itself) and don’t really have time to follow through with a consequence right now. So, you make a vague threat, hoping that will stave off more bad choices. How’s that working out for you? I know how well it goes in my house. When you continue to give your child chance after chance, never following through with the promised consequence, you teach him that you don’t mean what you say and you’re not really paying that much attention anyway. If a behavior is important enough to address in the first place, stop what you’re doing and make a point to see the process through. Taking the above suggestions into account, try this:
Give the command.
Wait for compliance.
Give a warning about what will happen if the command isn’t followed.
Wait for compliance.
Put the consequence into action. No excuses. No more chances. The time for begging and bartering is over.

Time out works well as a consequence for failing to listen; however, it’s important that when time out is over, you and your child return to the original situation and you go back to Step 1, giving the command again. That means you may also have to repeat steps 2 through 5 but, eventually, your child will understand that life is on hold until the command is followed so he may as well get it over with.

If you try these techniques for a while and listening still isn’t happening, talk to your child’s teachers and coaches to find out if this is a problem elsewhere or only at home. Trouble listening can be a sign of a more serious attentional or behavioral problem. If you’re concerned that this may be the case for your child, talk with your pediatrician about a referral for an evaluation.

Next month: “Addressing Selected Hearing Loss in Your Spouse.” Just kidding, again – you’re on your own with that one.

About this column: Send your parenting- and kid-related questions my way via email at: and I’ll tell you what I can: Please be aware that email is not a secure method of transmitting personal information so it’s best to keep your questions general. If your question is featured, your name and email will not be published. Submitting a question does not constitute a professional relationship in any way and this column is not meant to substitute for face-to-face therapy. If you feel  you’re doing the best you can and still need help, it may be time to bring in a professional. Start by talking with your child’s pediatrician to get a referral.

Kristen S. Berthiaume, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist

Kristen Berthiaume is a clinical psychologist with Grayson and Associates.  She obtained her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Kentucky. She completed a predoctoral internship in clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a post- doctoral fellowship in the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) Program at Duke University Medical Center.

She specializes in providing assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and families dealing with the following issues:
learning disorders
social skill deficits
organizational problems
behavioral difficulties

She generally focuses on behavioral and cognitive- behavioral techniques, but maintains a flexible approach to therapy. Her other day job is as mom to her four-year-old daughter and 20-month-old son.

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