If Your Child’s Not Listening, This is Why (and How Your Parenting Perspective Might Be Holding You Back)

We’ve heard it so many times, from coaching clients, friends, and family with young kids—even each other: “My kid just won’t listen!”

It can be frustrating to parent a child who’s openly defiant, refuses to cooperate, and doesn’t seem to care a smidge about what you just asked them to do. And then if you’ve got a strong-willed kid, every interaction can feel like an explosion, every day can feel like a minefield.

So how do you get out of that cycle of nagging with no result? Get to the root of the problem by figuring out which of these 5 reasons is behind your child’s lack of cooperation and how your Parenting Personality might be part of the problem.

[Still need to discover your Parenting Personality? Take the quiz here.]

1. Your child is distracted

How often does this happen? You glance at the clock, realize you’re running late, and call across the room to your child to stop what they’re doing and get ready for the next thing.

“Turn off the TV.”

“Pick up before your bath.”

“Go put on your shoes.”

How often does this method of hurling an instruction at your child work? Almost never, right?

Of course, because our child is engaged in something else. They’re not looking at the clock, thinking about the transition they need to help you facilitate. They’re just busy trying to make that block tower or that next level in their video game.

Instead…

Stop what you’re doing, get close to your child (physically), and engage with them in what they’re doing. “Wow, your tower is almost as tall as you are! Would you please wait to put another block on top because I need to tell you something.” Wait for your child’s full attention. That might mean touching their arm or having them sit in your lap. Make eye contact so you know they’re really hearing you before you make your request. Then, after you’ve told them what you need them to do, ask them to repeat it back to you so you know they heard you.

Who struggles most

Fireball Parents value efficiency and independence, for themselves and their kids. That might mean wanting to move swiftly from one task to the next. But it can be easy to forget how absorbed our children are in a world all their own. They may really need our help to press pause, come up for air, and think about the next item on the agenda, even before they start moving their body to attend to it. Crescents can also be hesitant to burst their child’s bubble and really force them to transition when they’re having so much fun.

2. You’re not being consistent

Imagine you came in to work late. Your boss caught you and documented your late arrival with HR. Would you be more or less likely to arrive on time going forward?

Now imagine you arrived late again, but this time, your boss greeted you, made no mention of the time, and never brought the infraction up with HR. I’ll ask again: would you be more or less likely to arrive on time going forward?

If you know that every single time you arrive late, there will be a negative consequence, you’re much more likely to show up when you’re supposed to. But if you think there’s some leniency, or some inconsistency in your boss’s response, well then, you’re much more likely to take advantage of the situation, right?

It’s the same with kids, and the research proves it. Kids whose parents disagree about how and when to discipline their child are more likely to be “noncompliant.”² This is especially important as kids get older and they can judge the positive and negative outcomes of their actions.

Instead…

Provide your child with clear outcomes. For instance, if you tell your child that you’ll have time to play a board game before bedtime, but only if they’re ready before 7:30 pm, let that time be the true cut off. If they stall and aren’t ready until 8:00 pm, but you still play the game, your own inconsistency might be what slows down bedtime the following night!

Who struggles most

Pair a Constellation Parent with another person who doesn’t have the same game plan, and get ready for inconsistencies to pop up. Whether it’s a desire not to introduce conflict into an adult relationship or empathy for another perspective on the situation, don’t be surprised if indecisiveness between the adults leads to issues with the child listening.

3. Your child doesn’t understand

When I had my first toddler, I was guilty of letting her take out every single toy she owned, then getting frustrated when she wouldn’t help me clean up. I’d say to her, “But you made this mess, not me. You have to put these toys away.” But looking back, her little two-year-old brain probably had no idea how to tackle a mess that big! Where do you even begin?

Another example would be telling your preschooler to “go get dressed.” Even though our adult brain is well versed in the many steps needed to accomplish this task, young children might need them broken down:

  • Go to your room and open your bottom dresser drawer. Pick out a pair of long pants. It’s cold today, so don’t pick out shorts!
  • Close that drawer and open the next one up. Select a shirt—no actually, a sweater. (You know what a sweater is, right?)
  • Close that drawer and take off your pajamas. Leave them on your bed and put on your sweater and pants. Hopefully, you have the gross motor skills for dressing and undressing. Good luck!

When you put it like that, the command “Go get dressed” might sound awfully silly. Your child might not be capable of breaking down the complex task you’ve given to them to complete all the steps independently.

Instead…

Give your child concrete, age-appropriate tasks, one at a time. And give them time to think through what you’re asking them. (Observational studies show that parents often don’t provide enough time for their kids to comply!)¹ Rather than asking a child who’s trashed the house to “clean up,” walk her over to the toy cars, hand her the bin they normally live in, and ask her to put all the cars in their home. And if you can make a game of it, even better!

Who struggles most

Anyone could fall into this trap of not having a firm grasp of their child’s developmental capabilities. It’s easy to look at our growing child and imagine that they have the fine and gross motor skills, as well as the executive functioning skills, necessary to complete a task they aren’t yet ready to accomplish independently.

4. You’re saying it all wrong

I’ll be honest, I cringe every time I hear a parent ask their child if they’d like to do something that’s not optional, like…

Would you like to get into your car seat now so we can drive home?

Do you want to come wash your hands before dinner?

Although this phrasing sounds lovely (and loving), it actually confuses young children because it masks a command as a request, leaving your child to wonder whether they actually need to do what you’re asking them to do.

Instead…

Make it clear that non-negotiable commands are just that by phrasing them as statements, not questions, and telling your child exactly what they need to do. If you are going to ask a question, let the child pick which of two things they’d rather do first. “Do you want to put on your pants first, or your shirt?” It probably won’t surprise you that developmental psychologists and linguists who’ve studied the effects of giving kids “direct” and “indirect” commands found that children are more likely to follow clear, specific instructions over polite suggestions.³

Who struggles most

Crescent Parents are especially in tune with their child’s emotions, which can make them incredibly gentle in their tone of voice and messaging to their children. With an eye toward manners and social graces, Constellations prefer language that guides people to the desired outcome, not forces them. In both cases, Crescents and Constellations want to make their true intentions clear to their children.

5. Your child doesn’t feel connected to you

We’ve all had a relationship with someone who bossed us around—whether it was a mean older sibling or a terrible boss—so it’s easy to understand how that dynamic gets old fast. Now, imagine yourself as the bossy big person in the relationship with your child. Just because we’re technically “in charge” of our children, we can’t take for granted that they’re individuals with their own spirit, needs, and interests driving them. They can’t just know we love them; they’ve got to feel that we love them, which in turn helps to build a sense of cooperation.

When we bark orders at them, one after another, without taking the time to connect or let the child be “in charge,” it creates a power struggle and (if you’re not careful) an actual desire to defy you.

Instead…

Build your connection to build cooperation. Make sure to highlight and really praise the occasions when your child does listen. Take time to play with them, one on one, no distractions. Let them lead in this scenario, and make sure you express your interest in the activity they’ve selected. In our coaching program, we teach a strategy called Special Time that allows you to really enter your child’s imaginative world to build connection and cooperation.

Who struggles most

When it comes to really diving into your child’s world, stepping back, and letting them be completely in charge, this can be challenging for Fireball Parents. I mean, who wants to be acting out an episode of Paw Patrol for twenty minutes when you really need to be prepping dinner? But think of it as money in the bank, for when you need to make a withdrawal in the form of your child’s cooperation later.

What now?

If you’ve got a young child who’s having trouble listening, it’s your job to…

  • Get your child’s attention;
  • Offer clear, specific, age-appropriate instructions…
  • With phrasing that makes it clear this is a command, not a request;
  • Provide consistent consequences;
  • And build a connection that leads to cooperation.

Ready to transform your relationship with your child?

We know how guilty and frustrated you can feel when you want to be a "positive parent" but none of the textbook, one-size-fits-all strategies seems to work with your child. You deserve the tools and confidence to make positive parenting simple and joyful.

That's why we created a free masterclass on the 3 Secrets of Raising Your Strong-Willed Child Using Positive Parenting. In it, you'll learn...

  • Research-based strategies proven to work—even with strong-willed kids
  • How to move away from negotiating, bribes, and threats that just don't work
  • The biggest missing ingredient to your success with positive parenting
SAVE MY SEAT!

Forehand R, Gardner H, and Roberts M. “Maternal response to child compliance and noncompliance: some normative data.” J Clin Child Psychol. 1978;2:121-124. And Peed S, Roberts M, Forehand R. “Evaluation of the effectiveness of a standardized parent training program in altering the interaction of mothers and their noncompliant children.” Behav Modif. 1978;1:323-350

Elder GH, Caspi A, and Cross CE. “Parent-child behavior in the great depression: life course and intergenerational influences.” In: Baltes PB, Brim OG, eds. Life Span Development and Behavior. Vol 6. New York, NY: Academic Press; 1984:109-158

Kalb, Larry M., and Rolf Loeber. “Child disobedience and noncompliance: a review.” Pediatrics, vol. 111, no. 3, Mar. 2003, p. 641+. 

We’ve heard it so many times, from coaching clients, friends, and family with young kids—even each other: “My kid just won’t listen!”

It can be frustrating to parent a child who’s openly defiant, refuses to cooperate, and doesn’t seem to care a smidge about what you just asked them to do. And then if you’ve got a strong-willed kid, every interaction can feel like an explosion, every day can feel like a minefield.

So how do you get out of that cycle of nagging with no result? Get to the root of the problem by figuring out which of these 5 reasons is behind your child’s lack of cooperation and how your Parenting Personality might be part of the problem.

[Still need to discover your Parenting Personality? Take the quiz here.]

1. Your child is distracted

How often does this happen? You glance at the clock, realize you’re running late, and call across the room to your child to stop what they’re doing and get ready for the next thing.

“Turn off the TV.”

“Pick up before your bath.”

“Go put on your shoes.”

How often does this method of hurling an instruction at your child work? Almost never, right?

Of course, because our child is engaged in something else. They’re not looking at the clock, thinking about the transition they need to help you facilitate. They’re just busy trying to make that block tower or that next level in their video game.

Instead…

Stop what you’re doing, get close to your child (physically), and engage with them in what they’re doing. “Wow, your tower is almost as tall as you are! Would you please wait to put another block on top because I need to tell you something.” Wait for your child’s full attention. That might mean touching their arm or having them sit in your lap. Make eye contact so you know they’re really hearing you before you make your request. Then, after you’ve told them what you need them to do, ask them to repeat it back to you so you know they heard you.

Who struggles most

Fireball Parents value efficiency and independence, for themselves and their kids. That might mean wanting to move swiftly from one task to the next. But it can be easy to forget how absorbed our children are in a world all their own. They may really need our help to press pause, come up for air, and think about the next item on the agenda, even before they start moving their body to attend to it. Crescents can also be hesitant to burst their child’s bubble and really force them to transition when they’re having so much fun.

2. You’re not being consistent

Imagine you came in to work late. Your boss caught you and documented your late arrival with HR. Would you be more or less likely to arrive on time going forward?

Now imagine you arrived late again, but this time, your boss greeted you, made no mention of the time, and never brought the infraction up with HR. I’ll ask again: would you be more or less likely to arrive on time going forward?

If you know that every single time you arrive late, there will be a negative consequence, you’re much more likely to show up when you’re supposed to. But if you think there’s some leniency, or some inconsistency in your boss’s response, well then, you’re much more likely to take advantage of the situation, right?

It’s the same with kids, and the research proves it. Kids whose parents disagree about how and when to discipline their child are more likely to be “noncompliant.”² This is especially important as kids get older and they can judge the positive and negative outcomes of their actions.

Instead…

Provide your child with clear outcomes. For instance, if you tell your child that you’ll have time to play a board game before bedtime, but only if they’re ready before 7:30 pm, let that time be the true cut off. If they stall and aren’t ready until 8:00 pm, but you still play the game, your own inconsistency might be what slows down bedtime the following night!

Who struggles most

Pair a Constellation Parent with another person who doesn’t have the same game plan, and get ready for inconsistencies to pop up. Whether it’s a desire not to introduce conflict into an adult relationship or empathy for another perspective on the situation, don’t be surprised if indecisiveness between the adults leads to issues with the child listening.

3. Your child doesn’t understand

When I had my first toddler, I was guilty of letting her take out every single toy she owned, then getting frustrated when she wouldn’t help me clean up. I’d say to her, “But you made this mess, not me. You have to put these toys away.” But looking back, her little two-year-old brain probably had no idea how to tackle a mess that big! Where do you even begin?

Another example would be telling your preschooler to “go get dressed.” Even though our adult brain is well versed in the many steps needed to accomplish this task, young children might need them broken down:

  • Go to your room and open your bottom dresser drawer. Pick out a pair of long pants. It’s cold today, so don’t pick out shorts!
  • Close that drawer and open the next one up. Select a shirt—no actually, a sweater. (You know what a sweater is, right?)
  • Close that drawer and take off your pajamas. Leave them on your bed and put on your sweater and pants. Hopefully, you have the gross motor skills for dressing and undressing. Good luck!

When you put it like that, the command “Go get dressed” might sound awfully silly. Your child might not be capable of breaking down the complex task you’ve given to them to complete all the steps independently.

Instead…

Give your child concrete, age-appropriate tasks, one at a time. And give them time to think through what you’re asking them. (Observational studies show that parents often don’t provide enough time for their kids to comply!)¹ Rather than asking a child who’s trashed the house to “clean up,” walk her over to the toy cars, hand her the bin they normally live in, and ask her to put all the cars in their home. And if you can make a game of it, even better!

Who struggles most

Anyone could fall into this trap of not having a firm grasp of their child’s developmental capabilities. It’s easy to look at our growing child and imagine that they have the fine and gross motor skills, as well as the executive functioning skills, necessary to complete a task they aren’t yet ready to accomplish independently.

4. You’re saying it all wrong

I’ll be honest, I cringe every time I hear a parent ask their child if they’d like to do something that’s not optional, like…

Would you like to get into your car seat now so we can drive home?

Do you want to come wash your hands before dinner?

Although this phrasing sounds lovely (and loving), it actually confuses young children because it masks a command as a request, leaving your child to wonder whether they actually need to do what you’re asking them to do.

Instead…

Make it clear that non-negotiable commands are just that by phrasing them as statements, not questions, and telling your child exactly what they need to do. If you are going to ask a question, let the child pick which of two things they’d rather do first. “Do you want to put on your pants first, or your shirt?” It probably won’t surprise you that developmental psychologists and linguists who’ve studied the effects of giving kids “direct” and “indirect” commands found that children are more likely to follow clear, specific instructions over polite suggestions.³

Who struggles most

Crescent Parents are especially in tune with their child’s emotions, which can make them incredibly gentle in their tone of voice and messaging to their children. With an eye toward manners and social graces, Constellations prefer language that guides people to the desired outcome, not forces them. In both cases, Crescents and Constellations want to make their true intentions clear to their children.

5. Your child doesn’t feel connected to you

We’ve all had a relationship with someone who bossed us around—whether it was a mean older sibling or a terrible boss—so it’s easy to understand how that dynamic gets old fast. Now, imagine yourself as the bossy big person in the relationship with your child. Just because we’re technically “in charge” of our children, we can’t take for granted that they’re individuals with their own spirit, needs, and interests driving them. They can’t just know we love them; they’ve got to feel that we love them, which in turn helps to build a sense of cooperation.

When we bark orders at them, one after another, without taking the time to connect or let the child be “in charge,” it creates a power struggle and (if you’re not careful) an actual desire to defy you.

Instead…

Build your connection to build cooperation. Make sure to highlight and really praise the occasions when your child does listen. Take time to play with them, one on one, no distractions. Let them lead in this scenario, and make sure you express your interest in the activity they’ve selected. In our coaching program, we teach a strategy called Special Time that allows you to really enter your child’s imaginative world to build connection and cooperation.

Who struggles most

When it comes to really diving into your child’s world, stepping back, and letting them be completely in charge, this can be challenging for Fireball Parents. I mean, who wants to be acting out an episode of Paw Patrol for twenty minutes when you really need to be prepping dinner? But think of it as money in the bank, for when you need to make a withdrawal in the form of your child’s cooperation later.

What now?

If you’ve got a young child who’s having trouble listening, it’s your job to…

  • Get your child’s attention;
  • Offer clear, specific, age-appropriate instructions…
  • With phrasing that makes it clear this is a command, not a request;
  • Provide consistent consequences;
  • And build a connection that leads to cooperation.

Ready to transform your relationship with your child?

We know how guilty and frustrated you can feel when you want to be a "positive parent" but none of the textbook, one-size-fits-all strategies seems to work with your child. You deserve the tools and confidence to make positive parenting simple and joyful.

That's why we created a free masterclass on the 3 Secrets of Raising Your Strong-Willed Child Using Positive Parenting. In it, you'll learn...

  • Research-based strategies proven to work—even with strong-willed kids
  • How to move away from negotiating, bribes, and threats that just don't work
  • The biggest missing ingredient to your success with positive parenting

Forehand R, Gardner H, and Roberts M. “Maternal response to child compliance and noncompliance: some normative data.” J Clin Child Psychol. 1978;2:121-124. And Peed S, Roberts M, Forehand R. “Evaluation of the effectiveness of a standardized parent training program in altering the interaction of mothers and their noncompliant children.” Behav Modif. 1978;1:323-350

Elder GH, Caspi A, and Cross CE. “Parent-child behavior in the great depression: life course and intergenerational influences.” In: Baltes PB, Brim OG, eds. Life Span Development and Behavior. Vol 6. New York, NY: Academic Press; 1984:109-158

Kalb, Larry M., and Rolf Loeber. “Child disobedience and noncompliance: a review.” Pediatrics, vol. 111, no. 3, Mar. 2003, p. 641+. 

About the author

Evie Granville, M.Ed., is an author, parent coach, speaker, and podcaster. Her advice has been featured by Parents, MSN, The Washington Post, Associated Press, Reader’s Digest, and other major media outlets. She is the co-author of Modern Manners for Moms & Dads: Practical Parenting Solutions for Sticky Social Situations and the co-creator of the Solar System Parenting Framework and Quiz.

Evie holds a master’s degree in education from George Mason University as well as a bachelor’s from Columbia University. Her advice stems from her professional experience, her research, as well as her “hands-on training” as a mother of two.

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