Have you ever felt like saying, “I’ve tried everything and my child still won’t listen!”? There are several factors involved in a child’s willingness to cooperate. What you should know is that a child not doing what she is told is less about “not listening” and more about how able she feels to do what you want her to. There often are small, easy-to-fix issues that cause big problems with a child’s willingness to listen.

Before getting frustrated, try asking yourself the following:

Is her attachment tank empty?

Children will feel more inclined to cooperate when they feel securely attached to the person delivering the instructions. If the attachment tank is “empty,” it can greatly affect their behaviour and self-confidence. A child with an empty tank will do anything he can to fill it — in a negative or positive way. You can find out more about the attachment tank and how to fill it here.

Is her listening compromised by physical needs?

Kid-compromisers are anything that put a child’s focus on getting their physical needs met, and thus not on you. If a child (and adult) is preoccupied on eating, sleeping, or regrouping due to feeling hungry, tired, or over-stimulated, she is extremely unlike to be able to listen to you.

Are your expectations reasonable?

Sometimes very well-meaning parents ask too much of their children for their age and physical abilities. If your child is unable to behave themselves in a grocery store, they might not be prepared to be there. Pick your battles, and try again in a few months.

If you’re constantly saying “No, don’t touch that,” or “Don’t open that drawer,” another easy fix is to decrease temptation for misbehaviour by childproofing your home to a degree that your child can be in areas without you needing to constantly say no to her.

Is she dealing with intense emotions?

It is normal to have big, strong feelings… even as an adult! I know big reactions can come at inopportune times (like trying to get out the door), but when time is taken to calm everyone down and regroup, kids will be able to hear you better.

Meet emotional intensity with empathy.  Reel in negative self-talk like “I don’t have time for this!” and look at your emotional child. Connect with her by asking yourself, “What does my child need right now?” I know you might have a need to get somewhere or do something, but these emotional outbursts tend to decrease or settle when a child feels important to her parent and sees a parent using a calm-down plan (and is taught how to have one, too.)

If you are having a tough time being empathetic, which we all struggle with on some days, I wrote this article to help.

Did you surprise her?

Sudden changes can cause frustration and upset. Children need to know ahead of time when a transition is coming. Use signals and warnings to avoid surprising a child with an, “Okay, time to go home.”

Here is an example of a morning routine to reduce surprises and increase cooperation.

Are you using clear instructions?

Use simple, clear instructions to deliver your message. Remember to use a statement like, “It’s shoes-on time,” instead of a yes/no question. Using yes/no questions (which will likely be met with “NO!”) put the power to refuse or ignore what you say in your child’s hands.

Don’t throw in, “OKAY?” at the end of an instruction—that turns it into a yes/ no question.

Are you being friendly when you talk?

You don’t need to be coercive to get kids to do what you want. Be friendly, be fun, be caring, and smile. Find a way to deliver your message in a firm and friendly way. Here are examples of ways to communicate that encourage cooperation:

Instead of, “Go wash your hands.” Use: “Everyone with clean hands is eating.” (smile)

Instead of, “I told you three times already to get your shoes on!” Use: “When this song is over, you know it’s time to put your shoes on.” (Use of a transition signal and a when/ then)

If you are looking for more examples of positive phrases to use, please check out my Taming Tantrums smartphone app (Canada iTunes, US iTunes, Android).


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