7 Things You Should Do When Your Child Ignores You

It’s infuriating when a child doesn’t listen to directions. If you’re pressed for time and your child won’t budge, it can be especially frustrating. It’s important to teach your child to listen to you the first time you speak. Otherwise, ignoring your requests could become a common habit.

Whether you get no reply when you tell your child it’s time to come inside, or your child acts like they don't hear you when you tell them to pick up their toys, here are seven steps you should take when your child ignores you.

Eliminate Distractions

Get your child's attention before you give instructions.
Jamie Grill Photography / Getty Images

It’s important to distinguish between willful defiance and simply not hearing you. If you yell to your child when they're playing video games in the other room, they might be too engrossed in the game to hear you call them. If you tell them to put their bike away when they're zooming past the driveway, they might not catch what you have to say.

Before you give your child instructions, get rid of all distractions. Turn off the TV, call their name, and establish eye contact. You might even need to put a hand on their shoulder. Then, give your child clear directions that outline what you want them to do.

Keep your directions short and simple by saying something like, “Pick your toys up, please.” Skip the lecture and use a firm and neutral tone of voice.

Request Repetition

Ensure that your child understands what you said by asking them to repeat back your instructions. Ask, “OK, so what are you supposed to do now?” and wait for them to explain, “I’m supposed to put on my play clothes so I can help you rake the lawn.”

Offer clarification or ask if they have any questions. If your child can repeat back to you what they're supposed to do, you’ll know your expectations are clear.

Give One Warning

After you’ve given your child instructions and you’re sure they understand, wait about five seconds. It may take a little time for the information to sink in. If your child doesn’t make any attempts to follow through with your command, they're ignoring you.

Give your child a when...then warning. Say something like, "When you go upstairs and start cleaning your room, then you will be able to play on the computer tonight."

Use the same approach even if your child doesn’t ignore you completely. If your child says something like, “I know!” or “I’ll do it in a minute,” give them a warning. Teach your child that they need to follow your instructions when you give them, not according to their own schedule.

A great way to reduce conflict and increase adherence is to provide limited choices. This provides your child with opportunities for increased responsibility and a sense of personal control: "You can choose to clean up your room before or after dinner—your choice."

Follow Through

After you’ve given a warning, give your child a few seconds to comprehend. If your child makes no attempt to do what you’ve asked, then follow through with a consequence. You could say something like, "Because you chose not to clean up the dishes, you have also chosen to lose out on video game time."

If a privilege is lost, be sure that your child understands the loss is not something you chose to do. Emphasize that they can make a different choice and change the outcomes.

Make sure you follow through on your warning. If you aren't prepared to go through with the consequence you've laid out (such as taking away a privilege) find something that you can go through with.

Create a Plan

Make your concerns known by saying, "I notice we are having challenges, especially around getting things done. What is getting in the way of you being able to follow through?" Rather than accusing them of not listening, attempt to have a conversation about the possible roadblocks.

For some children, receiving praise and positive attention is enough motivation for them to keep up the good work. If you point out to your child, “Great job shutting the TV off right when I asked you to,” they might be more motivated to do it again.

Other kids need a bigger incentive to follow directions. Consider a reward system or a token economy system to motivate your child to be more compliant.

Rule Out Underlying Problems

If your child’s refusal to listen is a problem in more than one environment (for example, not listening at home and at school) it’s important to rule out underlying problems. There are a few questions you should ask yourself before you assume your child is ignoring you.

  • Could your child have a hearing problem? Get your child’s hearing checked if they seem to have trouble hearing you or understanding your directions.
  • Does your child have trouble paying attention? If your child is very focused on what they're doing and they don’t hear you, or if they can’t focus long enough to follow through with what you’ve said, they might have a condition such as ADHD.
  • Does your child have a cognitive condition? Developmental problems or cognitive impairments can make it difficult for a child to process information and take action in a short amount of time.

If you suspect your child may have an underlying medical or mental health issue, talk to their pediatrician. They can assess your child and rule out any medical or mental health explanation for their behavior. If a condition is diagnosed, you will be able to work with them on treatment.

Avoid Traps

Sometimes, parents inadvertently train their kids to ignore them. Yelling, nagging, and begging are more likely to make a child ignore you. Lengthy lectures and giving too many commands can also cause your child to stop listening.

Reserve your instructions for the most important issues you want to address. Stick to a single warning—repeat warnings will teach your child that they don't have to listen the first time you speak.

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Quick Tips: Six Keys to Giving Good Directions. Updated November 2019.

  2. Lippold MA, Davis KD, Lawson KM, Mchale SM. Day-to-day consistency in positive parent-child interactions and youth well-being. J Child Fam Stud. 2016;25(12):3584-3592. doi:10.1007/s10826-016-0502-x

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Why Are Discipline and Consequences Important?. Updated November 2019.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms and Diagnosis of ADHD. Updated November 2019.