How to Get Kids to Pay Attention

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Feeling ignored? You’re not alone. What parent hasn’t issued a request to their child, only to be met with a blank stare or worse, crickets? With every repeated request, parents spiral further into frustration. It’s discouraging, defeating and just plain maddening — why can’t kids just listen? Because getting kids to listen isn’t as simple as it seems, and reasons kids might not listen are as varied as kids themselves. Read on for age-by-age guidance on creating better communication with your kids, so you and your kids can feel heard and respected.



Eye to Eye

Toddlers and preschoolers may appear to disregard your requests, but they aren’t actively resisting. When they’re engaged in play or another activity, they might be genuinely oblivious to your words. When communicating a request, it’s important to ensure that the request was heard before assuming that a child is being disrespectful, says Réa M. Wright, a family therapist in Davidson, North Carolina. Caregivers should treat toddlers and preschoolers with the same respect and care they’d give an adult, she says. “Young children need to feel seen and heard, and be spoken to respectfully, with kindness and care, with age-appropriate requests.”

Offer toddlers and preschoolers two or three choices, say experts Roslyn A. Haber and Marlyn Press, associate professors at Touro College Graduate School of Education in New York City, and use a multifaceted communication approach, combining verbal requests with visual cues and body language to make sure your request gets through. Put this into practice: Get down on a child’s level, make eye contact, use a soft voice, a child’s name and a gentle touch on a child’s arm or shoulder while speaking.


Brick Wall

Fewer experiences inspire more parental frustration than speaking to an apparently unresponsive child. Being “ignored” is a common experience for parents, and often reflects an underlying power struggle. When preteens feel spoken “at” instead of with, or field lots of repeated requests from caregivers, they may simply tune them out. Tweens may ignore parental requests because experience has taught them that parents soon throw their hands up in exasperation and stomp away without following through on the request.

The best approach? Ensure your child hears you by getting into his line of vision and making eye contact, then calmly and rationally state your request along with reasonable consequences if the request is ignored. Kids can then decide on their own to comply, says Wright, which diffuses any power struggles.

“The calmer I am when I’m being ignored by a child, the more efficient and effective my responses are liable to be,” Wright says. “Give your kids options, and if you’re ignored, articulate the natural and logical consequences. Be prepared and willing to follow through on those consequences swiftly and calmly, without yelling, bargaining, demanding or threatening.”


Two-Way Street

Want teens to listen? Hear them out. Teens need to feel heard in order to open up and be receptive to listening, Wright says. Teens live to test boundaries. Becoming independent is, after all, their job. Keep this in mind as you build healthy two-way communication. “I often tell parents that listening to teens is probably a lot more important than lecturing them,” Wright says.

To encourage teens to talk and listen, simply follow their lead. Talk about topics they’re interested in, ask questions and genuinely listen to responses, even if that means being subjected to a 30-minute verbal essay on the merits of their favorite band. Teens tend to be more open to communicating with parents when they’re side-by-side, instead of face-to-face, so go for a drive, a walk or volunteer together. Try not to interrupt, ask “tell me” or “how” questions, and never act shocked or judgmental, even if your teen reveals something shocking. Model effective and empathetic listening, and teens will follow suit.

Malia Jacobson is a nationally published journalist and mom of three.