Make your point without driving yourself crazy.
Manners & Responsibility: Getting Your Child to Listen
Remember that adorable chatty child who not long ago hung lovingly on your every word and considered you her number-one pal and confidant? Now she often seems like a glassy-eyed pre-tween who's turned ignoring you into an art form and transformed even the simplest request ("Please turn off the TV" or "Put your socks in the hamper") into an exercise in mind-numbing repetition.
Your child isn't deliberately trying to drive you insane (successful though she may be), and her maddening new behavior has more to do with her sense of self than how she feels about you. Seven- and 8-year-olds are experiencing an increasing sense of control over their own lives, and they're focusing more than ever before on the outside world and the interesting things going on there, like school, friends, fads, and sports, says Mary Rourke, Ph.D., director of school psychology at Widener University's Institute for Graduate Clinical Psychology, in Chester, Pennsylvania. Their selective deafness is one way of testing the limits of their growing independence.
It's also a method of dealing with new pressures and responsibilities. "Kids this age spend most of the school day following instructions," says Carla Fick, Psy.D., a child psychologist and clinical director of the nonprofit Smart Love Family Services, in Chicago. "School is more demanding, so they have fewer opportunities to zone out, de-stress, and exercise their own choices." Because they feel safest at home, it's the place they're most likely to assert themselves and take the time they need to chill out. Often, the way they do that is by acting as if their parents have faded into the furniture. However, you can regain your child's ear without losing your voice or your cool just by listening to our advice -- no bullhorn necessary.
Get some perspective.
Yelling to get your kid's attention won't do either of you much good. "Instead, take a step back and recognize that your child isn't purposely trying to undermine you -- he's just acting his age," says Joseph Shrand, M.D., an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Then, work on a better strategy. When Marianna Carnovale, of Nutley, New Jersey, has something important to tell her 7-year-old son, Christopher, she'll avoid the times when he's glued to the TV or a video game. She also asks him to repeat her instructions, a tactic that helps him remember what he needs to do.
Make your presence known.
As you're well aware, it's surprisingly easy for your 7- or 8-year-old to ignore what you say. But it's a lot harder for her to block you out in other ways. "Sometimes a simple tap on the shoulder will snap her out of it, or you may have to physically place yourself between her and whatever she's focused on," says Mark Sharp, Ph.D., a psychologist in Oak Brook, Illinois. A little drama or humor doesn't hurt, either. When 8-year-old Carly is lost in a world of her own, her mom, Lonnie Lane, goes for a laugh. "My strategy is to say something completely off-topic, outlandish, and silly, like 'Hey, chicken lips!' " says the Portland, Oregon, mom.
Avoid the echo.
Calling your child's name over and over again will just get you a sore throat. As will the infinite repeating of "clear your stuff off the table; dinner's almost ready." Sit him down and let him know that you're willing to remind him of your request once, but he'll have to deal with the consequences if he doesn't respond after that. For example, you could say, "I'm happy to ask you once to put on your shoes, but after that, I'm walking out to the car without you." Another option is to use a kitchen timer, suggests Dr. Shrand. Tell your child, "We're going to set this for three minutes, and then you need to stop watching TV and put your clothes away." Reinforce the three-minute warning with a reward: "After you put your clothes away, you can use the computer for 15 minutes before bedtime." If he still doesn't pay attention, the next step might be to take away TV until he's come up with his own plan for being a better listener.
Choose the message.
Before you get yourself embroiled in a battle of wills, make sure you're concentrating on the things that really matter. Seven-year-old Bodhi Menice, of Corrales, New Mexico, has a talent for ignoring his mother, Danielle, when she asks him to do something he'd rather not do. So she weighs the importance of her requests. "If it's something essential, like setting the table before we sit down for dinner, then I'll make sure he gets it done," she says. If not, she'll either let it go or wait until later. "Because kids this age often feel overwhelmed, they're more likely to listen and cooperate if they feel that parents are only asking them to do the really important things," says Dr. Fick. Critical tasks like homework and family chores can take precedence over smaller issues that pop up during the day, like a pair of sneakers kicked off in the hallway or a candy wrapper that's fallen shy of the trash can.
Listen to your child.
Sometimes, kids don't pay attention because they feel like no one's paying attention to them. "Parents are often so busy themselves that they don't always focus on things they consider to be insignificant, but those may be the very things that matter most to a child," says Dr. Fick. Harry Potter may be the last person you want to discuss at the end of a rough day, but what's going on at Hogwarts could be as important to her as her unfinished homework is to you. When kids feel cared about, understood, and respected by you, they're a lot more likely to hear what you have to say.
Originally published in the April 2011 issue of Parents magazine.