Help me Sara: When kids won't listen

By Sara Dimerman, Psychologist on March 26, 2013
My nine-year-old son doesn’t listen. I have to repeat myself three times before he responds to me and by then I’m yelling. I don’t like the sound of my own voice when this happens but I feel like I have no choice but to raise mine to get him to respond. Help me Sara!


It sounds as if your son has become “parent deaf”. First, we need to establish whether this is really about listening and hearing. In most cases, children are listening and hearing but choosing not to respond. He is likely tuning you out or, as the old cliché goes, your words are going in one ear and out the other. He may even have become immune to them. Let’s go with the assumption that he has heard you all along but he is choosing not to cooperate.

The question is: why do you need to get to the point of not liking the sound of your own voice before he responds to your request? There may be a number of reasons why he doesn’t respond the fi rst, second or third time, even though he has heard you – loud and clear. The most common reason is because he knows that you will eventually get to the point of raising your voice (usually after a predictable number of more calmly repeated requests) and fi gures he doesn’t really need to turn off the TV or video game just yet. In other words, he is buying time.

Only when he hears your raised voice or footsteps coming towards him does he respond. Another reason for his non-compliance may be that he wants to assert power and control and by not responding to your request right away, feels that he is more in charge. Typically, power struggles leave a parent feeling angry, annoyed or frustrated. Sound familiar?

Regardless of why your son refuses to respond, it may be wise to consider more action and less talk (or yelling). Most parents can predict when their child isn’t going to “listen.” These times typically involve asking him to change direction or focus when he’d rather not. Consider this: When was the last time your son didn’t hear and respond quickly to your suggestion of going out for ice cream? Once you figure out the triggers, think about how you can handle the situation differently.

Next steps

Come up with a logical consequence for not listening and share it with your son in advance. If he tends to “not listen” and ignore you when you ask him to wash his hands and come for dinner, tell him what will happen next time he doesn’t do it.

For example: “I am only going to ask you once to come down for dinner. If you don’t come and you miss dinner, you’ll have to prepare your own meal or wait until breakfast.” To be fair, make sure that your request is not made in the form of calling out from the other end of the house, but rather in the same room and directly across from him. This might make a difference.

Once you have verified that he has seen and heard you, allow the consequence that you have set up with him in advance to take effect. This may sound harsh, but you might only need to put this into effect once, before you see a radical change in his listening habits.

Sara Dimerman is a Psychologist, author and parenting expert in the Greater Toronto Area. Read more at
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, April 2013.

By Sara Dimerman, Psychologist| March 26, 2013

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