3 Reasons Your Kids Don’t Listen (And What To Do About It)

This is a summary of the FB event that you joined. I figured it would be easier to have it in order all in one spot. Feel free to return to the event itself to make comments. You can also reach me at [email protected] at any time.

Here’s a bit of info about me: I live in Loudoun County. My neighborhood is right smack in the middle of South Riding, Stone Ridge, and Brambleton in Ashburn.

Although I work as a Parenting Specialist, my most important job is being a mom. I have two daughters who are 5 ½ and 3.

I also have a Master’s Degree in clinical psychology and am a Certified Positive Discipline Parent Educator. I have worked with kids and teens for years — as a ADHD Coach, Academic Coach, intensive in-home mentor, and psychotherapist.

My areas of clinical interest are resilience and self-esteem. I also  have a specialty in understanding behavior (and how to motivate better behavior from almost anyone). I have helped hundreds of children, adolescents AND adults increase their confidence and make choices that set them up for success… and I do all of this without expecting perfection from anyone.

Even though I am making some suggestions tonight, the information I am providing is NOT meant to make you feel guilty or put more pressure on you. There’s already enough of that going on in Northern Virginia!

I want to stress that despite what I do for a living, I am NOT a perfect parent. Far from it. But I have seen, over and over, that don’t have to be a perfect parent to raise great kids. In fact, it’s even better if your kids DON’T think you’re perfect. (Ask me about that sometime if you want to know why…)

Reason #1 Your Kids Don’t Listen – Lack of Tools

I’m going to give you tips for how to get your kids to listen, but first we need to start by understanding why they don’t listen in the first place. Once we know that, we can find solutions that WORK — and don’t involve yelling or nagging.

OK, so here’s the FIRST REASON children don’t listen:

They don’t have the tools to do what you ask them to do.

Of course they know what it means when you say “sit still” or “turn of the video game” or “pick up your toy.”

But they don’t have the TOOLS to:

  • Deal with monotonous tasks…..By nature, children are novelty- and stimulation-seeking. They will “tune out” of boring things and tune into anything that is more interesting. This means that when children are brushing teeth, getting dressed, and getting out the door, they will be easily distracted!
  • Control their impulses…..Children are naturally going to do the first thing that comes into their mind. This means that they are going to jump on the couch even when you’ve told them not to — especially when they’re “bored” (see above).
  • Transition from the the thing that feels really good in the moment to go do something they don’t care about…..This means that they will be tempted to ignore you when you ask them to stop playing their video game or get off of the ipad so they can do their homework.

There is a BIOLOGICAL reason that children struggle with these tasks.

There is actually a part of the brain that regulates these functions. It’s called the “prefrontal cortex.” The prefrontal cortex help humans stay focused, delay gratification, fight impulses, and handle frustration. AND it doesn’t fully develop until we’re in our mid-20s. So the part of the brain that allows kids to cooperate…. isn’t fully developed!

Don’t worry, that doesn’t mean that kids won’t do what we ask until they are in their mid-20s. And it doesn’t mean that we should stop expecting our kids to act responsibly. (Lowering expectations actually has a negative effect on kids’ self-esteem and resilience.)

That just means that we have to give them the tools to be successful since these skills don’t come naturally to them. When kids know how to make monotonous tasks more stimulating, delay gratification, and transition to less interesting tasks….. they are MUCH more cooperative.


QUESTION FOR YOU: Can you think of an example of when your child wasn’t cooperating that could have been caused by their:
….inability to deal with monotonous tasks
….inability to control their impulses or
….inability to transition away from something that gave them positive feelings?

Tip #1 for Getting Your Kids to Listen – Give them Tools

Since we know that kids don’t listen because they don’t have the tools what we ask, Tip #1 is to give them the tools. (I call this “depositing into their toolbox” and I teach an entire class on how to do this. These tips are excerpts from that class.)

If your children don’t listen when you ask them to do MONOTONOUS TASKS (like getting shoes on before going out the door):

  • Make it into a challenge. “Can you get your shoes on before I finish singing the alphabet?”
  • Make it fun. “Can you and your brother get your shoes on within 30 seconds?” (Note: don’t have siblings compete AGAINST each other, as that fosters sibling rivalry)
  • Make it silly. “This shoe goes on this foot, right?” (Point to wrong foot.) “No? Where does it go?”
  • These can all be modified to work for older children. If you have any questions about that, let me know.

If they don’t listen because they can’t STOP DOING SOMETHING THEY ENJOY (like leaving their video game or TV show to come to the dinner table):

  • Teach them how to transition. “I can tell you were right in the middle of playing/watching. Can you tell me about the game/TV show as we walk to the table? I want to hear!”
  • Give them tools to tolerate discomfort. “I also get mad when I have to stop doing something I want to do. I think in my head about what a good time I was having. And then I think about the next time I can do the thing I love.”

If they don’t listen because they DON’T FEEL LIKE DOING SOMETHING like taking out the trash or clearing the table, show them how to do things they don’t feel like doing:

  • Teach distraction. “While you’re clearing the table, why don’t think about what you want to do with your friends this weekend?”
  • Teach complaining and doing it anyway. “While you’re taking out the trash, why don’t you think about all of the reasons you hate taking out the trash? You can complain in your head as much as you want, as long as the job gets done.”

(Note that these strategies aren’t going to make your child HAPPY or make them WANT to do something. But making our kids happy isn’t our goal. The point is these tools teach children HOW to be responsible and do the things they don’t feel like doing.)

Here’s a hint for implementation: Come up with plans for how to handle situations BEFORE you’re in the situation itself. Once a child is filled with “Yuck” (we’re going to talk about Yuck in the next tip!), they will not listen to any of your suggestions.

QUESTION FOR YOU: What is one tool you can teach your child that may make them more successful in cooperating?


 Reason #2 Your Kids Don’t Listen – The Yuck Factor

After discussing children’s lack of tools, parents always ask, “OK, but sometimes my child has the tools they need but still refuses to listen.”

That’s because of REASON #2, something I call “The Yuck Factor.”

“The Yuck Factor” is the simple concept that when we are in a good place (physically, emotionally) we act positively. When we are in a bad place (we’re sick or emotionally drained) we act negatively.

You can apply this to yourself. When you’re having a really good day, you probably parent more consistently with your values, right? But when you’re hungry, or tired, or you’ve just had a fight with a friend, you probably parent in a way that you later regret? That’s “The Yuck Factor.”

There’s a line from a song in Frozen that says, “People make bad choices when they’re scared or mad or stressed….” (Um, isn’t ‘scared or mad or stressed’ what we feel most of the time as parents?!) That line summarizes The Yuck Factor.

There are biological reasons that we can’t act rationally when we are in Yuck. Basically, Yuck OVERRIDES the prefrontal cortex. I mentioned that the prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain that allows us to stay focused, delay gratification, fight impulses, and deal with frustration… It’s also the part of the brain that allows us to think rationally, consider the consequences of our actions, and COOPERATE WITH OTHERS!

It’s a pretty important part of our brain — and it’s offline when we’re in Yuck. So your child may have the tools to be successful, but he or she literally can’t access those tools when in Yuck.

Think about it: When you’re upset, do you think logically? Do you do hard things? No. Because all of your energy is going into making yourself feel better and doing anything you can to change the situation rather than on doing the “right thing.” The same is true for your children.


QUESTION FOR YOU: Can you think of an example of when your child wasn’t cooperating that could have been caused by their Yuck (feeling bad, either because they were hungry/tired/sick or emotionally upset?)

Tip #2 for Getting Your Kids to Listen – Manage the Yuck

For better or worse, emotions (and Yuck) take over our “responsible” prefrontal cortex offline. One one of the reasons that there is so much fighting in our homes is that we interact with our children when both WE and THEY are in Yuck. For better or worse, trying to solve problems when someone is in Yuck is pretty ineffective.

So here are some solutions for interacting with your child’s “Yuck” so that they can access the prefrontal cortex and do what you’re asking them to do. (I call this “depositing into their Needs Accounts” and the class I teach also addresses this. Here are some excerpts from the class.)

When dealing your child’s Yuck and lack of cooperation IN THE MOMENT:

  • Remain CALM. (This is the hardest part for most parents, including me! Yes, I teach these skills… I will give you some brief tips at the end of this event). When you lose your cool, your child immediately goes into Yuck, will become defensive, and will NOT be able to access their prefrontal cortex or cooperate.
  • CONNECT by respecting your child’s perspective. This does not mean you agree with their behavior! But when children don’t feel understood, they will immediately go into Yuck and will be unable to cooperate. Respecting their perspective without agreeing sounds like: “You just hit your sister because you thought she was trying to take something from you.”
  • CORRECT behavior by making boundaries clear and reminding your child of the tools you have taught them: “We do not hit in this house. If you’re upset, you can go squeeze your teddy bear/anger ball or come talk to me.”

Sometimes you might want to choose NOT TO DEAL WITH THE SITUATION IN THE MOMENT.

  • As I’ve discussed, when emotions are running high, everyone is in Yuck and no one is able to solve problems or think rationally.
  • Often it’s best to simply focus on calming the child down (through connection) and correct behavior later.
  • When everyone is calm, you can rationally discuss your child’s behavior. When you do that, they can actually learn the lesson you are trying to teach!

PROACTIVELY WORK ON YOUR RELATIONSHIP with your child so that your requests don’t immediately put them into YUCK.

  • It’s so important to work on your relationship with your kids because every person is more influenced by someone they have a good relationship with. Think about it: Who do you listen to the most? Who do you act most cooperatively with? What kind of relationship do you have with that person/people?
  • I personally parent “proactively” almost all the time. I’m a very reactive person and “staying calm” in the moment is not my strength. I spend about 85% of my parenting energy in proactively giving my kids tools and “depositing” into their accounts so that they listen to me more in the moment. (This is something else I can teach you how to do too!)

Lastly, keep this in mind when considering how Yuck affects behavior:

“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.” – Thich Nhat Hahn

QUESTION FOR YOU: What is one strategy you can use to deal with Yuck in your home?

(If you don’t know if “Yuck” even exists, let me know! I’d be happy to talk to you about it. I know the specific causes of Yuck and would be happy to share them with you.)

Reason #3 Your Kids Don’t Listen – Lack of Influence

I’m going to tell you that third reason that children don’t cooperate.

The reason is that they aren’t truly influenced by you.

Think about it: Who is someone who truly influences you? Someone who yells at you? Someone who threatens to take things away from you? Someone who dismisses your perspective as unimportant? Someone who is wishy-washy in their authority?

There is a phrase I teach parents that helps them remember what they need to be in order to truly influence their children: “Be FIRM AND RESPECTFUL.”

Think about it: Most people who have influenced you are you are probably FIRM. They probably expect a lot from you and are clear (and don’t waver) in expecting you to be the best you can be. But they’re probably also RESPECTFUL. They value who you are and DO NOT patronize or dismiss your point of view.

In general, parents who are ONLY FIRM and don’t also respect their kids tend to raise children who rebel as soon as their parents are out of sight.

In general, parents who are ONLY RESPECTFUL and aren’t firm in setting boundaries tend to raise children who walk all over them and act disrespectfully or defiantly.

It is sometimes difficult to find this balance between kind and firm. But it is absolutely possible to do.

QUESTION FOR YOU: Are you mostly kind? Mostly firm? Do you fluctuate between being ‘strict’ and ‘permissive’?

Tip #3 for Getting Your Kids to Listen – Become an Influence

Now that you know that becoming an influence means being firm and respectful, I’m going to tell you what that looks like.

To be FIRM, speak confidently and do what you say you’re going to do.

“Speaking confidently” means that you have an authoritative tone. It means that you are not yelling or exploding AND it also means you are not timid because of your fear of your child’s reaction to the boundary.

“Doing what you say you’re going to do” means that you follow through with the consequences you’ve discussed previously. It may sound like: “We don’t hit in this house. I told you that when you hit we need to take a break together. We’re going to go in the other room to take a break and calm down.”

Here’s a hint about being firm and consistent: It’s not just in the moment that you need to be firm and consistent. If you PROACTIVELY demonstrate that you mean what you say, children are much more likely to listen to you in the moment.

  • Make sure you follow through with things you commit to. If you are too tired to do that, commit to less. It’s better to under-promise than under-deliver.
  • Following through doesn’t even have to be something as obvious as going to your child’s soccer game when you said you would. You can demonstrate that you mean what you say in everyday situations. For example, when your child interrupts you and you say, “I’m talking, I’ll be with you in a minute,” be sure to go back and listen to what they were trying to tell you.

To be RESPECTFUL, put yourself in your child’s shoes.

Give them the benefit of the doubt, even when their behavior is awful. Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you agree with them. It just means that you treat them as if they are worthy of respect so that

  • they can hear your message instead of defending and protecting themselves
  • they grow up with positive self-esteem

This is what it sounds like in the moment:

“You just hit your sister because she got too close to the castle you’ve worked so hard on. You were afraid she’d knock it down!”

Here are some hints that make it easier to be respectful by seeing your child’s perspective.

  • Practice playing reporter….. If you were reporting both sides of the situation, how would you report theirs?
  • Get to “of course.”…. Spend enough time thinking about your child’s perspective that you TRULY understand their behavior. You’ll know you truly understand it when you can say, “OF COURSE my son hit his sister! He was frustrated and has no other way to demonstrate that.”

Many parents are either firm OR respectful. Other parents swing back and forth between being firm and respectful. It’s the balance that matters.

QUESTION FOR YOU: What is one thing you can do to be more firm? What is one thing you can do to be more respectful?

Bonus Tip: How to Stay Calm In the Moment

Even with all of these strategies, sometimes your kids will still drive you crazy. So here are some alternatives to yelling when you are about to lose your cool.

The key is to override the anger/fight-or-flight response that prevents you from responding consistently with your morals and values.

Here are some ways to do that:

  • Deep breathing. You know the old standby, deep breathing. My suggestion is to count while you’re breathing, and try to exhale for a few seconds longer than you inhale. So try a 3-2-5 breath: Inhale through your nose and count slowly to 3, hold for 2, and exhale for 5 through your mouth. Repeat as many times as necessary.
  • Use a mantra. This is one I use often. Find a phrase that resonates with you and repeat it over and over. My phrase is “Choose Love” (inspired by a the blogger at Hands-Free Mama).
  • Do a complicated math problem or sing the alphabet backwards. This may sound funny, but it actually brings your brain out of the fight-or-flight / reactive / emotional response and into a more logical one.
  • Use a sensory strategy. Use your senses to “ground” you so that you don’t fly off the handle! Here’s one suggestion from a post on the blog “Creative With Kids”: When you feel yourself getting angry, “stop, identify 3 things you can see, identify 3 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear… Then 2 things you can see, feel, hear… Then 1 thing you can see, feel, hear… Then repeat if necessary which I have never had to.”
  • Do the opposite. If you want to yell, whisper. If are so frustrated that you wish you could shake your child, hug them instead.
  • Use gratitude. This one is SO hard but when I can get to it, it works every time. When my children are driving me crazy, I remember that there are parents of the world who are really worried about the health and well-being of their children. I remind myself that we are not in a war zone. My kids are not sick of fighting for their lives. And that their behavior, while frustrating, means that they are developing normally.

I hope this information gave you some food for thought!

If you’re interested in receiving more free tips for managing everyday parenting situations (without adding more guilt or stress to your life), sign up for the Redefining Perfect Parenting e-newsletter here.

If you want to know more about “proactive parenting,” learn about the Parenting by Deposit Solution here (and the online e-course here).To work together in person to identify and implement find solutions for changing the tone in your home, learn how to do that here.