Frances Forsyth tests 10 ways to help children pay attention

In the scheme of things, “not listening” is not the worst thing a child will ever do. Unlike pushing, biting or hitting, it won’t physically hurt anyone. Unlike screaming and tantrums, it won’t cause a disturbance in public places. It might put a child in danger if you are trying to warn them about an unseen hazard, but fortunately hazards are fairly rare and we have other strategies for protecting our children from harm. Most of the time, speaking and getting no response is merely aggravating. Nevertheless, to be ignored repeatedly by your own child can be incredibly aggravating. When my older son entered the “ignoring” phase it took months of trial and error for me to conquer my aggravation and work out how best to get through to him.

On one hand, I’ve never wanted to raise a child who mindlessly follows orders. On the other hand, I’d like my son to pay attention when I speak to him and take my views into account. I can see why he might ignore “It’s time to stop playing and get ready for bed”, but even something as benign as “Would you like a drink?” was often met with silence. Try as I might to stay calm and reasonable, after repeating the simplest questions again and again and getting nowhere, I often ended up shouting at him. I felt awful about it – I don’t think anyone enjoys shouting at their child, especially over something that seems so trivial – and I tried harder to get him to “listen to me the first time so I don’t have to shout”, but still he ignored me, still I got aggravated, and I started to wonder if anything other than shouting would get through. Of course, shouting seemed to work – it certainly got his attention. But then I noticed that he had started to shout crossly at other people when he wanted their attention. It was quite a shock to realise he was simply copying the way I behaved towards him. It convinced me that things had to change. I started searching for advice in parenting books, on parenting websites and by asking other parents. Here are ten suggestions that made the biggest difference.

1. Understand why children ignore
First I had to change my attitude and try to be curious instead of cross. Was he deliberately ignoring me, did he genuinely not hear me, or could he even have a hearing impairment? We played listening games to establish that his ears were functioning as they should. (Can you hear me if I whisper? Can you hear me if I’m in the next room? Can you hear far-away sounds like bird songs and the rumble of traffic?) It seemed that there were two different reasons why he didn’t respond. Sometimes it was because he simply didn’t want to do what I was asking. More often, he was so absorbed in what he was doing that he genuinely didn’t notice that I was talking to him.

2. Remember: it’s normal
It’s extremely common for children to develop selective hearing. As one friend put it, “My son’s ears are malfunctioning and he can only hear us if we are offering treats”. Babies and young toddlers are highly attuned to their parents’ voices. At this age they love novelty, they don’t have a long concentration span, and they are extremely interested in what we say and do, which makes it incredibly easy to catch their attention. (My one-year-old is in this phase at the moment, and it’s delightful.) Parents can get a shock somewhere around the age of two years when children become more self-motivated, more focused on their play, better at concentrating and tuning out distractions. It’s a big developmental shift towards greater independence and understanding of the world, but with the downside that they are less responsive when spoken to. It can be helpful to remember that it’s not personal and they don’t mean to be rude.

Children can also ignore as an alternative to saying “no”. They are experimenting with different ways to react to interruptions, or the stress of having too many demands on their attention at once. Young toddlers often enjoy saying “no!”, but as they get older, they may try ignoring instead.

3. See the positive side
Once I understood the developmental reasons for ignoring it was easier to see the positive side. There is a big difference between “You are ignoring me again and I am fed up” and “You are learning how to focus and concentrate” or “You are determined to finish what you are doing”. When I took more time to notice what my son was doing, I was also less prone to interrupt him unless I needed to.

4. Empower your child
Once a child has a good grasp of language, we can suggest phrases they could use instead of staying silent. Can they remember to say “Hold on, I’m in the middle of something”, “Just a minute, I’m thinking”, or simply, “I don’t know”? This way, they avoid seeming rude. If you know you might over-react and shout if they ignore you, can you give them the vocabulary to stand up for themselves, such as “Please could you speak more calmly”? (Or, as my son would say, “Don’t talk to me in a mean voice!”)

5. Notice how often your child DOES listen
No child ignores everything. When I made a point of noticing when my son did pay attention, it helped to give me:
• A sense of perspective. He actually paid attention more often than he ignored me.
• Clues about what circumstances helped him to pay attention, so I could learn what worked. I discovered that my son listened closely if I made suggestions about something he was already doing, but he found it much harder to respond if I asked him to switch his attention to something new.
• The chance to give him some appreciation whenever he listened well. Encouragement for doing well works better than criticism for doing badly.

6. Notice how often you ignore your child
Here’s the uncomfortable part. What does my child have to do to get me to listen? Am I a model of attentiveness? Or am I busy with other responsibilities, distracted by a smartphone, and does he have to ask me five times before I respond?

7. Don’t get straight to the point
Here’s the part that took the most patience. If you want your child’s attention, don’t get straight to the point. Instead, make the effort to connect first. I can be quite impatient and I’d fallen into the habit of expecting to get my son’s attention immediately, either by asking a direct question or telling him what I wanted, e.g. “Are you ready for a snack?”, “Bathtime!”, “Shoes off the sofa!” etc. I had to remind myself to communicate better: firstly, connect with him, and secondly, say what I had to say. The first stage is far more important. When I got down to his level and deliberately paid attention to what he was doing, he was much more likely to listen to me.

8. Don’t repeat yourself
“If you’ve asked once and not gotten a response, don’t just repeat yourself. You don’t have your child’s attention”, advises Laura Markham of ahaparenting.com. Whenever you catch yourself repeating the same thing again and again, take it as a warning sign that you need to focus on connecting first. Otherwise, at best you waste your breath, and at worst you inadvertently teach your child to ignore you the first time you speak because they know you will repeat yourself.

9. Connect before you communicate
Creating a friendly and positive connection will help your child want to listen. The following suggestions apply to all those times when a simple “I just said something, did you hear me?” doesn’t work. These suggestions look terribly obvious, but it’s terribly easy to forget the obvious under pressure.
• Get close.
• Touch.
• Make eye contact.
• Use a conversational tone of voice instead of a commanding or critical tone.
• Acknowledge what your child is doing, and join in for a few minutes if you have time. (If you think you don’t have time, consider how long it will take to overcome your child’s resistance later.)

10. Get your message across
Once your child seems ready to listen:
• Keep it simple and say what you do want. It’s easier for the brain to process a positive instruction like “Keep your food on the plate” than a negative one like “Stop spreading your food all over the table”, because it says exactly what you want instead of drawing attention to what you don’t want. (Nobody advertises Coca Cola by saying “Don’t drink Pepsi”.)
• You don’t have to rely on speech alone. “When you vary your techniques, it’s easier to send your message more than once without feeling repetitive or as though you’re nagging”, writes Mary Sheedy Kurcinka in Raising Your Spirited Child. “Watch a classroom teacher, and you’ll see her step over to the light switch and blink the lights. A visual signal that says ‘Stop. Listen to me.’ Then she’ll sing ‘It’s time to put your work away,’ an auditory message. To those who are not responding, she will walk over, touch, and remind – a physical message. Finally she may begin helping some of the children pick up the blocks or crayons they are playing with – a demonstration. In four different ways she has sent her message.”
• Do something surprising: muddle your words up, sing a song, turn it into a game. Anything to stay positive, engage your child’s interest and avoid getting into a rut.
• Motivate. With children, even the simplest tasks of the daily routine can become an obstacle course. If it seems like an ordeal to the parents, it will probably be an ordeal for the children. The tasks may be non-negotiable (clothes must be worn, teeth must be brushed, messes must be cleaned up, people and property must not be damaged, etc), but the attitude can be flexible: “We have to do this, so what can we do to make it enjoyable?”

Does it work?
After many months trying to stick to positive strategies for getting my son’s attention, I’d love to say he never ignores me – but he’s four years old, of course he still ignores me. He seems to do it less frequently, and he’s better at saying “I’m in the middle of something” instead of staying silent, but nothing is foolproof: there are still times when I slip into old habits, and there are still times when he ignores me despite my best efforts to communicate better. The biggest and most welcome change is that when he does ignore me, it doesn’t aggravate me nearly as much. I know that with a bit of effort to slow down, be mindful of his developmental stage, connect with him before speaking, and pay attention to the way I communicate, I can capture his attention without resorting to shouting. It might sound like a lot of stages to remember, but – unlike shouting – it doesn’t send tempers soaring; and crucially, I won’t mind if he copies me.