Asking a child to pickup his toys is a common request, but when a parent has to ask 5 times and he still doesn’t listen, one begins to wonder – is this typical behavior or is there a reason why he’s not listening?
“Kids not listening can take on many forms and is made complicated by issues of the child’s temperament, parenting style and expectations, developmental stage, and issues of health and well-being,” said Cooper White, MD, FAAP, pediatrician at Akron Children’s Hospital and director of Locust Pediatric Care Group . “When parents speak of their child ‘not listening,’ what they often mean is not obeying and there can be underlying reasons for why or how well they do it.”
Age and development play a big role in how a child responds to direction or listens. Infants and early toddlers are curious and will explore their world, but their brains are incapable of processing how to do as they are told. By age 2 and older, kids develop an understanding of parental expectations, right and wrong, and an ability to follow instructions.
Dr. White explains the reason why a child does or doesn’t listen may have more to do with a situation or problem than simply not understanding a parent’s request. For example:
What: A toddler who runs away while shopping and doesn’t come back when called.
Why: This sort of behavior is commonly attention seeking.
What: The 4th grader who won’t give back her tablet when asked.
Why: Defiance is common and typically a way to test boundaries and limits. Children generally appreciate having limits and structure, but they are often willing and eager to see how far they can be stretched.
What: A tween who refuses to wear his bike helmet due to peer pressure.
Why: This isn’t about not listening, rather it’s about listening to social influences other than his parents.
What: The child who struggles in math class so she withdraws or becomes disruptive in class.
Why: If a child has trouble with emotional regulation, she can respond negatively to direction given by a teacher or parent. While perceived as not listening, there may be an underlying cause for the behavior such as trauma, stress or anxiety.
What: A teenager not responding to simple requests or completing chores or homework.
Why: Medical or mental health issues such as depression can have a profound impact on behaviors that may seem like not listening.
“There are dozens of reasons why a child may not listen in the moment or on a particular day, but a repeated pattern of not listening could be a sign of something else,” said Dr. White. “Getting a child’s language skills and hearing assessed is a great first step. If behaviors such as socialization or following directions impact a child’s functioning then mental health assessments for autism or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder may also be needed.”
Dr. White suggests parents foster healthy listening in positive ways such as:
- Interact and talk with your baby/child early and often. Pay attention and respond to preverbal interactions and read together regularly to develop language and listening skills.
- Minimize the influence, especially in early childhood, of screens and electronics. This simple act can have lasting positive benefits.
- Be a good role model. This applies not only to how you listen to your child, but also how you treat others, use social media and care for yourself.
- Be clear in your wording and expectations to help with understanding. Using a time frame such as ‘in 5 minutes’ or ‘when we get home’ can help a child transition from one activity to another and respond appropriately.
- Speak directly, face-to-face, to ensure you have a child’s attention. Distractions in thought or activity can get in the way of listening.
If you have questions or concerns about your child’s listening, contact your provider or find one at Akron Children’s Hospital Pediatrics.