How can I get my preschooler to stop ignoring me?
For little people who so often crave Mom’s and Dad’s attention, preschoolers have an amazing ability to also TUNE US OUT. Ignoring behavior rates high on parents’ drive-me-crazy meters.
“Okay, time to put that away and come to dinner.”
“Did you hear me? Time to put that away!”
“Hey! I said….”
Maybe your kid looks up. Maybe he or she mumbles, “Okay.” And still…doesn’t pay attention!
WHY it happens
The reason preschoolers ignore us isn’t always sheer civil disobedience. It’s a little more complex than that.
- Ignoring is sometimes pure preoccupation. Preschoolers are often all-in on whatever’s right before them. It’s entirely possible you haven’t been heard at all.
- Ignoring is a way of exerting control. Call it a mini-rebellion, if you will. Your child is busy with something else he’d rather do than whatever it is you might need. Or maybe he knows perfectly well why you’re calling – he’s made a mess, done something wrong, needs to take a bath or eat dinner. But he’d much rather keep on keeping on. Instead of saying so or getting into a debate about it, it’s easier for him to…ignore you.
- Ignoring is a little wishful thinking. A toddler or younger preschooler might think, If I can’t see you, what you want doesn’t exist. An older child pretends not to hear in a kind of magical hope that you’ll just stop. If you’re vague – or it doesn’t sound like something very fun is coming – ignoring is a handy way to postpone dealing.
Worth noting: Sometimes they ignore us because we’ve inadvertently taught them that it’s okay. When we let it slide—or zoom right to hollering—they learn that they can get away with the ignoring behavior because we seem to only really mean it when we yell.
Ignoring can begin in toddlerhood and escalates as kids get older. Their attention spans lengthen and they develop the cognitive skills to be masters of their own decisions.
(All of this advice assumes you’re sure it’s not a hearing problem. Hearing and listening are two different things!)
- Don’t get mad—go over. Yelling across a room can still be tuned out and only makes you madder. Worse, it only conditions your child that the time to finally pay attention to mom is when she’s LOUD AND BONKERS MAD! Better: Walk directly over to your child to deliver your message. It’s best if you can kneel down to his level. If your words still don’t get any attention, try saying (in an even voice), “Jack, give me your eyes” or “Look me in the eye” to make direct contact.
- Take a look at it from your child’s view. The other advantage of a going-to-your-child approach is that you can see exactly what’s got him or her so rapt. When we’re running around on our speed, it’s easy to expect things to happen “right now!” But your kid may be on a different timetable in terms of what he’s working on. Giving a little time to shift gears can grease cooperation.
- Say what you want—and why. Understanding “why” is motivating (because the bath water is still nice and warm and will get yucky and cold).
- Use precise words. “Clean all this up” can sound vague and overwhelming. “It’s time to put the felt pieces back into the box and put the felt board on the shelf” is more motivating. A concrete instruction is easier for your child to latch onto.
- Stick to your message. “Come to the table for dinner” is more straightforward than a long soliloquy about what you made, why your child will love it, why doesn’t she ever listen, and so on. That gets a tune-out.
- Explain the natural consequence and let it happen. You don’t come to the bath, you’re left with a quick cold one. You don’t come for dinner, you won’t be served.
- Give a heads-up when appropriate. Older preschoolers are getting better at tracking time. You might give a warning, for example: “When the timer dings, you need to put the crayons away.”
- Praise attentiveness and talk about WHY ignoring is bad and responding is good. The reason isn’t “because it makes mama batcrazy.” Preschoolers can grasp the basic concept of behaviors (like please and thank you and coming when called) that show others respect.
- Notice whether devices are a problem. The attention-sucking powers of everything from TV to tablets are pretty clear. If there are certain activities your child has an especially hard time detaching from, be aware you’ll want to set firmer limits around their time use. Setting timers and using power-off controls are one way.
- Act the way you expect your child to act. Do you or your partner routinely respond, “In a minute…” which stretches to 5 or 10 minutes? Does your child have to shout to catch your attention? Remember they’re ace copycats.
Ignoring clearly isn’t just a preschool behavior. But the more it’s understood—and the less it’s tolerated—the less you’re apt to see, over time. Preschoolers want to please us. At least, they do once we teach them to listen to what we want them to do!
—Content chief Paula Spencer Scott is a mom of 4 and step-mom of 2—and the author or co-author of more than a dozen books about parenting, health, and eldercare, including Bright From the Start; The Happiest Toddler on the Block; Like Mother, Like Daughter; and Surviving Alzheimer’s.