Selective Hearing May Be Why Your Family Ignores You

A parent and child at the breakfast table not talking to each other

It can be frustrating for parents when their child only seems to listen when they hear words they like, such as ice cream. But rather than simply ignoring you, this can be caused by selective hearing. Selective hearing refers to when a person appears to only hear what is important to them. It has nothing to do with hearing acuity. Instead, it happens due to the way the brain prioritizes sounds.

In children, when too many sound sources bombard the brain, the brain reacts by “tuning out” what seems less important. Multiple sounds inundate us every day, all day long. Learn more about selective hearing and how to deal with it to improve communication in your family.

What Is Selective Hearing?

Picture a typical weekday morning: The television news is on, the birds are chirping, the coffee pot is gurgling, the dishwasher is running, your spouse is talking to you, and you are listening to the sounds of the shower upstairs to make sure your child is getting ready for school. Despite all these sounds, you immediately hear the traffic report that concerns the route you normally drive.

Selective hearing can help your brain recognize the information that is most important and allow that information to be noticed.

The brain handles sensory information automatically at lower levels of awareness. When sensory information (including sound) comes in, the brain processes it by:

  • Filtering and enhancing — such as alerting to your name being called.
  • Selective Perception — such as not being able to enjoy a delicious meal when anxious.
  • Sensory Contrast — such as the difference in brightness of a candle in a dark room versus the same candle outside in the sunshine.
  • Prioritizing — such as the feel of your clothes is unimportant unless there is a tag abrading the skin.

This processing is necessary and can be helpful; one example of these processes at work can be seen in the cocktail party effect. In a group of people, with multiple conversations and noise in all directions, the brain is able to tune into the person that is the most important to hear and ignore the other conversations going on. Another example is the way a new mom seems to develop super hearing when it comes to hearing her baby cry and will wake up immediately but sleep through other, louder sounds.

How to Deal With Selective Hearing

  1. First, make sure there truly isn’t a hearing problem. In children, middle ear fluid is a common cause of fluctuating hearing loss. In adults, a high-frequency hearing loss associated with aging will make it more difficult to understand speech. A simple hearing test by an audiologist can determine if there are any underlying hearing problems that need to be addressed.
  2. Obtain attention before talking. Say their name, a gentle touch, and establishing eye contact are all good ways to make sure the brain is ready to receive the information you want to provide. Make sure the earbuds are out, the TV is muted, or the phone/computer is not being used when you are trying to have a conversation.
  3. Make it short. After about 6 minutes, most adults will not sustain attention if the topic is not interesting to them. For children, one or two words may be all that is needed: “Pajamas!” instead of, “I want you to go upstairs, find your yellow pajamas and put them on, and don’t forget to put your dirty clothes in the hamper.”
  4. Most importantly, model good listening. Give your undivided attention to others and ask they do the same in return. It’s a way to improve hearing without having anything to do with the ears.
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  • Bess, F.H., & Humes, L. (2008). Audiology: The Fundamentals. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

  • Jastreboff, P (1999). The Fifth Course on Tinnitus Retraining Therapy for Management of Tinnitus & Hyperacusis. Emory University. Written.

  • What is Selective Hearing? Wise Geek.

By Melissa Karp, AuD
 Melissa Karp, AuD, is a board-certified audiologist and the owner of a private audiology clinic in Charlotte, North Carolina.