When your child won't listen

Is your child tuning you out?
Is your child tuning you out? Photo: Getty Images

My child has stopped listening to me, and he won't do anything I tell him to do. Sound familiar?

Let's start with this caveat: Everything and nothing depends on age. A 3-year-old not listening and an 8-year-old not listening are two different issues. One is simply more expected than the other. But there is a degree of severity, frequency and causality of misbehavior that comes into play with every child and that is unique to him or her.

That said, every parent experiences this. The happy toddler who wanted to be just like you now seems to say "No" for the sheer joy of it. "Time to pick up your toys," is answered with an absolute "NO."

"Time to get in the car," "NO."

"Time to eat," "NO."

"Time for homework," "NO."

There are so many refusals that the parent either is fighting with the child (and losing) 90 percent of time, or gives up and stops making requests. In either case, simmering anger and resentment are at an all-time high.

It ain't pretty.

But these refusals aren't necessarily a bad thing. If we have done our parenting job well, our children start to become more and more independent. Because we have fulfilled their emotional and attachment needs, the child's brain has grown, and this new brain says, "Hey! Let's go try some new stuff! And furthermore, I am my own person and no one is in charge of me!" And voilĂ , the child will start to form all kinds of opinions not previously apparent and start to assert a newfound will.


This all starts, typically, around age 3, and it cycles throughout the childhood, right through adolescence.

Yes, this is annoying. Yes, this can make for a long day.

But it is good. Really! Parents, you want a child who is asserting himself in this world. That means he is maturing, growing and feeling safe enough to find the boundaries.

So, if we can assume that your child is happily growing and developing, we can take a look at a couple of things that parents do that turn this natural emergence into a full-blown problem.

1. You begin to bribe, nag, time-out or threaten the child as a means of moving him from Point A to Point B. These are the four horsemen of the apocalypse, parenting-style. Each chips away at your natural authority as a parent, creates problems where none existed before, uses shame as a parenting tool and requires you to up the ante as you run out of options.

2. You think something is "wrong" with the child and drag him to every specialist you can find, which only serves to tell the child "something is wrong with you."

3. You begin to carefully curate your child's life. Trials, failure and independence are seen as negatives rather than life's inevitable opportunities. When we view independence as misbehavior, we prevent the child from learning from natural consequences, we shield her from necessary feelings of frustration and we keep her emotional brain from growing.

So what to do? Allow your children to cry when they run into boundaries. For instance, you have said, "No more cookies." Your beautiful child whines and cries. Don't punish him for whining, and don't give in. Find something (anything) to occupy you while your child works through his emotions.

You also need to keep your expectations appropriate for your child's age and stage of development. Your 3- or 4-year-old is not socially savvy. You cannot train her to be a good friend or to not call the woman down the street "fat." You do not ask your 4-year-old "Do you want to get into the bath now?" The answer will be no. You say it's time for the bath.

Finally, know what you know. If you see your child is about to melt down at a birthday party, leave. No need to apologise or explain or get upset with your child. Just do what is best for your family.

So, while it is not easy, see yourself as leading your child's emergence - as a person creating excitement around the child's new desire to have a voice. You are building strong and loving boundaries while welcoming new opinions and voices to your family.

Scary? Sure. But this is what you want: a strong, loving, deeply connected child, right? Right.

Washington Post