How to Get Kids to Listen..the First Time! by Dr Michele Borba

Last updated: 09-26-2020

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How to Get Kids to Listen..the First Time! by Dr Michele Borba

 “That’s the fourth time I told you!”

 “Didn’t you hear anything I just said?”

Sound familiar? If you’re frustrated in trying to get your kid to listen, take heart: you’re not alone. Parents magazinepolled moms and dads about their toughest discipline challenge, and the hands-down winner was “My kid doesn’t listen to me.” In all fairness to the kids, we have become a “plugged-in” society.

Getting kids to listen…and do so the first time…is an art. And like any art, it will take practice. Many experts confirm that listening and communication are crucial skills for success and getting along in life. Knowing how to listen and to make yourself be understood opens doors to new relationships and enriches countless experiences. Effective communication skills enhance our children’s success in school by making it easier to gain knowledge and understand other people’s views. We also know that learning how to listen does not happen by chance. You are your child’s best communication instructor. Just remember, it’s never too early–or too late–to improve your child’s listening habits.

Here are a few of my favorite listening tips from the Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries.Just choose ONE tip that fits your family’s needs the best (and your parenting style), and then practice until it becomes a habit for you and your child.

Kids can’t learn to be good listeners if they don’t have good models to copy.  So make sure you show your kids what you expect them to do by being a good listener yourself. Show them that you listen to your spouse, your friends, and most importantly, to them. An old proverb is a great reminder: “We have two ears and one mouth for a reason.” Listen to your kid twice as much as you talk! Become the model you want your child to copy.

Three words: “You,” “If” and “Why” said at the beginning of a direction can frequently cause a kid to go on automatic tune-out. “You” sets your message up to assault your child’s character: “You never listen.” “If” sends a threatening tone: “If you don’t do what I ask….”  “Why” expects your child to explain his behavior and he may be clueless: “Why aren’t you listening?”  So just remove “you, if and why” from your requests and you’ll be more likely to have your kid tune in and comply.

If your kid is not listening, first get her attention and make sure she’s looking at you before you speak. You might lift your kid’s chin up gently so she looks into your eyes, squat down to her level, or give a verbal cue to get their attention. “Please, look at me and listen to what I have to say.”

Give your request when you’re eyeball to eyeball. You’re more likely to have your child’s full attention.

Nothing turns a kid off faster then yelling, so do the opposite: talk softer not louder. Teachers have used this strategy for years because it works.

Tailor your directions to your child’s attention span and cognitive abilities.

Make sure you tell your child exactly what you want him to do. Use declarative statements. “Please make your bed before you go outside.” Or: “You need to get ready to go to school now.”

Limiting your request to fewer words also helps. Sometimes saying one word does the trick: “Homework!” or “Chores!” (You can just write the word on a post-it and put it on the TV: “BED!”)

Be sure you don’t phrase your request as a question or a suggestion. If you want your child to comply then tell, don’t ask. The best way to get compliance is to give a short, clear direction that ends with a period. (I’ve worked with many parents who use question marks “Would you like to go to bed now?”

If time is of the essence or your child needs you to “jump start” him into action, don’t say anything. Just gently grab his hand and take him to where you want him to go.

Interrupting an involved child can lead to resistance. So if you see your child is really engrossed in something legitimate (her homework, texting his friend about homework, his Lego construction), have some flexibility. Wait until you see your child is a little less engaged in the task. Then say your request. Just ensure that your child doesn’t take advantage of the situation. (If he appears legitimately engrossed in an activity, give a time limit: “I need your attention in a minute, please.”

If you’ve been saying those directions two, three or four times then you’re training your kid that he doesn’t have to pay attention. You’ll just keep repeating yourself. So use the parenting techniques above, but also expect your child to listen the first time. Walk over to him, say the request firmly and then no more reminders. If he doesn’t obey then apply the consequence. (See below).

If you’re sure your child has heard the request and you’ve given directions set at your child’s listening capabilities, then it is time for a consequence. Not doing so means sends a message to your kid that you’re okay with him dismissing you. A first level consequence might be to say your request followed with the outcome if he doesn’t comply: “If you want cookies for dessert, please come now.” And if he shows up later, just say in a matter of fact tone, “Sorry, it’s too late.” Don’t back down or buy into your child’s defense: “I didn’t hear you!” Your answer is just a simple, “Maybe next time you’ll listen better. ”Just be consistent so your child knows you do expect him to tune in the first time.

You’ve tried better communication techniques and refined how you give directions. You’ve taken into account your child’s age or attention span and considered whether he has any kind of a hearing loss.

No kidding! If you notice your child has repeated listening problems — particularly when seated a bit further from you, don’t overlook that this could be a hearing problem. Swimming ear? Allergies? A hearing loss? Talk to your medical provider.

There is an art to asking your kids to do something. The way you ask greatly influences the way they respond. The fact is, learning to give directions so kids will listen takes practice. And breaking a child’s bad listening habits takes work and patience. So hang in there!

Tips from this blog were adapted from the chapter, “Doesn’t Listen!” in my book,  The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. You can also find dozens more ideas to improve your child’s attention, memory, and focusing as well as communication tips and more specific solutions for learning disabilities, autism spectrum, ADHD and more.  You can also refer to my daily blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check for ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news and research about child development. Follow me on twitter @MicheleBorba


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