How to handle the silent treatment from your preschooler

Everyone knows kids hate listening. So here's what you can do on the days when your preschooler doesn’t seem to hear you.

Photo: @LifeofK.J via Instagram

“It’s time to put our shoes on, hon.”

“You have two minutes to put those shoes on.”

“Put those shoes on RIGHT NOW!”

This kind of nagging happens daily, since my adorable daughter, Maytal, morphed into a headstrong “threenager.” I can ask, cajole, instruct and, yes, even bribe (at my weakest moments!), but getting her to listen the first time seems near impossible.

If you’re the parent of a preschooler, you can probably relate. “It can be really frustrating,” says Jennifer Gale, mom to Cameron, 5, and Liam, 3, in Calgary. “Some-times when we need to interrupt Liam’s playtime to clean up, he’ll just not respond. He’ll just give us this pouty look.”

Tuning out is common among preschoolers, says Julie Romanowski, a Vancouver parenting coach. But when your kid is silent and inattentive, they’re actually speaking volumes. “People say, ‘My kids don’t listen,’ but in my experience, they are listening—they just don’t always care about what’s being said.”

So how do you get a preoccupied preschooler to give a hoot when you’re speaking? Here are some tactics that should help.

Make a connection
Making face-to-face contact can work wonders in helping kids understand what you’re asking and why. Instead of shouting orders from another room, come into your child’s space and get interested in what they’re doing. Play with them briefly before sliding in a request. “Kids of this age group tend to want something in return for listening. And what they usually crave is the connection with their parents,” says Romanowski.

Toronto dad Fred Espina looks his three-year-old daughter, Penny, straight in the eyes when he wants her to listen. “She hates it if we try to take her out of what she’s doing,” he says. “But when we make eye contact, she knows I’m being serious.”

A woman and her daughter talk and laughAge-by-age guide to getting your kid to talk to you Give choices
Parents can get stuck in a my-way-or-the-highway mentality, but offering choices that lead your kids to your desired outcome can help them feel empowered. “If you want your child to get dressed, you can show them a purple dress or a pink dress, and have them pick their favourite one,” says Romanowski. It’s a tactic Jennifer and her husband have used with success. If, for example, her sons are playing a game that could become dangerous (such as sparring with sticks in the backyard), Jennifer suggests an alternative activity, like drawing with the sticks in the sandbox or making them into sandcastle flags. “If option A isn’t working, we will offer option B or C to help them see it’s not all or nothing,” she says.

Check your expectations
As adults, we’ve learned to expect fast results whenever we ask for something. Preschoolers don’t work that way, however. “If kids could listen to us the way our co-workers do, that would be terrific,” says Romanowski. “But we have to shelve that expectation and realize they are still learning communication skills and need our guidance to make them stronger.”

Simplifying requests and the language you use to make them can go a long way toward getting your kid’s attention. And as tough as it is to be completely ignored by your offspring, it’s worth taking a few breaths to calm down before continuing negotiations. “If we ask our child to get ready for dinner and the child chooses not to listen, our stress instincts get triggered because they are ignoring us, which we can subconsciously perceive as an emotional threat, and then we tend to react rather than respond,” says Romanowski. “The key here is to be aware of our instincts that have just kicked in and then try to temper that instinctual reaction, which tends to be more negative. Instead, we should respond to the child (which usually is more positive). I call this going the ‘compassionate route,’ and it’s extremely important in order to make that kind of connection with our children.”

When to see a doctor
By the time they reach four years of age, kids should typically be able to answer a variety of questions, tell a short story about their day, talk in sentences with adult-like grammar and hear you when you call from another room. Children who struggle to meet those milestones may be dealing with issues beyond selective listening. “If you call your child’s name and they never respond, or if they don’t startle at loud noises and appear to be relying on visual clues, these could also be signs of a hearing issue,” says Jennifer O’Donnell, chair of the board of directors for Speech-Language & Audiology Canada.

Having trouble following instructions with more than one step, not responding to fun requests (“Come to the kitchen for cookies!”) and having difficulty saying words or combining words could signal issues with speech and language or hearing. If you suspect your child can’t hear or understand you, check in with your doctor or a speech and language pathologist to discuss your concerns.

Read more:
29 toddler discipline tactics that work
6 discipline fallbacks… and how to fix them!

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