As the youngest of three children, I heard all the stories, good and not so good, about my siblings. The one that remains prevalent is this: when they were young, possibly 3 to 6 years old, they were with my mom in a department store. The elevator doors were open and they were running toward them.
My mom yelled “STOP!” Thankfully, they did. When my mother looked into the elevator, it was an open shaft. I shudder to think what the outcome may have been if my siblings did not listen.
Moral of the story: it doesn’t matter if your child has a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) — I work with children who are affected by all of these and certainly they have great potential, but we all need to learn to listen.
Listening is considered a skill; some are better at it than others, and often, listening needs to be developed. In family life, it’s not unusual for a parent to find herself repeating the same demand to the children: wash your hands and face, supper is served; pick up your toys, it’s time for bed. It feels like a battle of wills when you feel your child is tuning you out.
The way we talk to our children models the manner in which we want them to respond to us. If we shout while they are otherwise occupied, or demand too much at one time, they may not respond or they may appear as if they are not listening.
Listening is a behavior that needs to be taught. The best form of teaching is modeling the behavior you desire.
Show them respectful, undivided listening behaviors. “Mommy (Daddy), at school today, Brian used the red paint when I wanted the red paint.” Are you making eye contact with your child? Are you giving him or her a dose of undivided attention?
Distraction is a deal-breaker. If your child, for example, is playing with a toy or a video game he really enjoys, give him/her a heads-up, or count-down: in 10 minutes I would like you to clean your room, eight minutes, five more minutes …
Set a timer, this allows for less discussion. If you attempt to make a demand while your child is intensely involved in an activity, chances are they will protest or tune-out. That’s why a heads-up prepares them for what’s coming and helps to avoid power struggles.
Some children have difficulty with transitioning from one activity to another. This may be another reason why a parent perceives that the child is not listening or being defiant. Depending upon the age of the child, the warning of what’s to come and when, coupled with a count-down or timer, reduces the stress that a child with transition difficulties experiences. If your child is young or has special needs, a picture — showing the sequence of what’s to come, always, of course, with a prior heads-up, serves to reduce anxiety, with regard to change, transitions and/or following directions.
• make sure your child is looking at you when you make a request;
• children without the ability to make eye contact should be still and in your “space,”
• make sure your child understands what you are asking;
• keep it simple — too many steps or tasks may be overloading or confusing;
• is what you’re asking age-appropriate or in your child’s repertoire? Have you seen them do it before, are they capable?
• check in: “Do you know what I am asking you to do?
• most of all, don’t forget verbal praise, a hug and sincere appreciation to your child for listening!
As parents, we are always shaping our children’s behaviors to become socially adaptive and successful. The more positive the experience of learning appropriate behaviors, the more apt your child is to be able to follow rules and directions and build a foundation for success and safety, across all social settings.
Email Beth Raiola, MS, LBS, BCBA at