5 Reasons Your Child Doesn't Listen the First Time You Speak

The way you give instructions determines how likely it is your child will listen the first time you speak.
Sonya Hurtado / Taxi / Getty Images

Getting kids to listen the first time you speak can feel like an uphill battle. Whether your child insists they didn't hear you the first three times you told them to turn off their video game, or they argue every time you tell them to get ready for bed, repeating yourself can be frustrating. 

While it’s normal—and healthy—for kids to assert their independence once in a while, they also need to learn how to follow directions.

One effective way to improve your child's compliance is by changing the way you give instructions.

If you get into the habit of doing any of these five things, you might be accidentally training your child not to listen.

1. You Give Too Many Warnings

Counting to three over and over again; asking, “How many times do I have to tell you?”; or saying, “This is really your last warning,” won’t be effective. If you give too many warnings, your child will learn to call your bluff.

In fact, giving repeat warnings trains your child not to listen the first time you speak. Why do what you say the first time if you’re going to repeat it at least five more times?

If you repeat yourself, your child will start to tune you out. Give your directions once. If they don't listen, follow through with a warning and be ready to give them a consequence if they don't take action. 

2. You Make Meaningless Threats

Threats like, “You’ll never be allowed to go outside again if you don’t clean your room right now!” or, “I’m throwing away all your toys if you don’t pick them up!” aren’t likely to work.

While you may mean them when you say them out of sheer frustration, children are quick to recognize when a parent cannot or will not follow through with outrageous punishments.

Exaggerated threats aren’t the only problem. Sometimes, parents make threats that sound inviting. Saying, “I’ll turn this car around right now if you don’t stop arguing!” may sound more like a reward rather than a punishment—depending upon the destination.

3. You Engage in Power Struggles

It's easy to get sucked into an argument with your child without really noticing it’s happening. But the longer you engage in the, “Yes you are!” and “No I’m not!” battle, the longer your child can avoid following through with your instructions.

If you tell your child to clean their room, and they argue about it for 20 minutes, that’s 20 minutes they just delayed doing what you asked. Don’t get distracted by a power struggle. Instead, be prepared to follow through with a consequence if your child chooses not to comply.

4. You Don’t Follow Through With Consequences

Negative consequences teach your child to make better choices in the future. But if you struggle to follow through with consequences consistently, your child won’t learn.

Threatening to take away privileges without actually doing it, or giving in when your child begs for his privileges back won't be effective. Follow through with logical consequences that will serve as a life lesson.

Teach your child that you say what you mean and mean what you say. Only offer warnings if you plan to follow through with a fair consequence.

5. You Raise Your Voice

When children don't listen, many parents are tempted to raise their voices. But yelling isn’t likely to lead to positive results. Your child will simply learn to tune you out.

Also, research shows yelling can be just as harmful as spanking. It will damage your relationship with your child, which will decrease the chances your child will listen to you in the future.

A Word from Verywell

If you're struggling to get your child to listen, try a new approach. It takes practice to change the way you speak to your child. But over time, you'll get used to giving more effective commands.

It's important to prepare your kids for the real world. Their future boss isn't likely to remind them 10 times that they should finish a report or fill out a time sheet. Instead, they'll experience consequences for not doing what's expected of them.

Make it a priority to get your child to listen the first you speak. It will save both of you a lot of time and frustration when your child knows you mean business. 

Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.