4 Reasons Your Child Might Struggle to Listen and What to Do

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It can be really difficult when kids’ go-to response is “no.” Difficult listening and following parents’ requests can contribute to power struggles over small things and meltdowns in public. Parents often feel as if their authority is being challenged and it’s easy to feel as if our kids’ “no” is a sign of disrespect. This can lead to parents giving consequences, which can further escalate difficult emotions and behaviors and result in feelings of strain in the parent-child relationship. This pattern of communication and interaction can feel exhausting! 

I often encourage parents to take a step back and get curious about what could be contributing to the “no.” Frequent “no’s” are often reflective of some sort of need that isn’t being met or indicative of a skill that could be strengthened. Getting curious about the reasons behind the “no” will give you more insight into ways that will respond in a way that is supportive versus reactive. 

Anxiety makes us want to be in control

Sometimes kids will say “no” when they want things to be or go a certain way (their way!). Certain rigid behaviors and wanting to be in control can sometimes be a sign of coping with feelings of anxiety. This is true for adults too. Think about how regulating it can feel at the end of a chaotic day to get to be in full control of something. (I know this can be hard to come by for parents, but use your imagination here.) Being in full control of your space, dinner plans, time, etc. can feel great. Since elevated feelings of anxiety often make us feel out of control, attempts to take control can be the brain and body’s way of coping and returning to some sort of homeostasis. If you think anxiety and a need to exert some sort of control could be underpinning your child’s non-compliant behaviors, I recommend parents provide plenty of appropriate and proactive opportunities for their child to get this need met. For example, engaging in (even just a few minutes of) play with your child and allowing them to lead the interaction can be a great way for your child to release stress and feel in charge of their environment and themselves. Think about it like putting money in the bank before taking a withdrawal, or building them up and helping them feel a sense of control before we take charge and begin making requests of them. 

Difficulty shifting attention

Parents sometimes state, “It’s like they don’t even hear me,” when describing their interaction with their child. Imagine a train on a track and the train is being asked to switch directions. The train just keeps chugging ahead in the only direction that appears available. This is how it can feel for some kids who have difficulty shifting their attention. To help kids build their attentional control skills and increase compliant behaviors, try getting down on their level, making eye contact, and clearly stating your request. Give countdown reminders so kids can get a chance to process the ending of something fun and make the mental and emotional switch. Implementing some sort of call-and-response system can also be a great way for your child to take a minute to pause and verbally let you know they heard you. 

Difficulty comprehending time and planning

When kids especially struggle to listen around transition times, a lagging skill that could be underlying this challenge is difficulty comprehending a sense of time and planning for the future (skills all kids struggle with to a certain extent). When kids struggle to grasp the concept of time, it can feel like they will never get to enjoy the fun thing again that they’ve been asked to stop doing or that the boring thing that they have been asked to do will last forever. Provide visual cues and use timers so kids can better understand that the fun things will come back, or that the request we’ve made is time-limited. Stick to a schedule/routine as much as possible and use pre-coaching to help your child know what to expect in situations where they are likely to get stuck. For example, before a trip to the store, you could remind your child, “Remember, we’re going to get milk, eggs, and soap and when we get home you can pick a piece of candy.”  

Limited verbal skills 

Sometimes kids will say “no” when what they really mean might be, “I just need five more minutes,” or, “Oh, I didn’t realize it was time to do that. My brain isn’t really prepared,” or, “I’m not sure I have the capacity to do that right now, I’m not feeling great.” You get the picture! Kids are still developing their verbal skills, including their ability to verbalize what they’re thinking, feeling, and needing so we usually don’t get a lot of background information when kids say “no.” I encourage parents to take a step back and get curious if there could be an underlying reason for the “no.” To help build your child’s verbal skills and stay out of power struggles, I recommend parents proceed with more collaborative forms of communication such as asking, “What’s your concern?” I encourage parents to also share their concerns or give an explanation behind their requests. This gives you both the opportunity to further understand the “why” behind what you are both wanting and gives you an opportunity to find a win-win solution. 

As always, don’t hesitate to reach out to your child’s Pediatrician or a Licensed Mental Health Professional if you feel your child has mental health or behavioral symptoms that are causing significant distress or impacting their ability to engage in the daily activities of life.

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Stephanie is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based out of Wilsonville. She has trained in a variety of child and family therapeutic services, including multiple modalities of play therapy, parent-child interaction therapy, child-parent relationship therapy, and collaborative problem-solving. Stephanie has over ten years of experience working with youth and families in various settings and contexts, including public schools, the juvenile justice system, and psychiatric residential facilities. Stephanie owns and operates Seeds of Love Counseling, where she focuses on helping children, teens, and families feel and function their best through building strong attachments and positive mental health habits. Stephanie can be reached at www.seedsoflovecounseling.com.