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Help me Sara: When kids won’t listen

Kid with loud speaker - help me sara: when kids won't listenMy 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.

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