Preschooler not listening? Be patient and pick your battles

preschoolernotlisteningQ: My 4-year-old acts like she doesn’t hear me when I ask her to do something — anything. How can I get her to listen?

A: When your child doesn’t seem to hear you, it definitely can be frustrating for parents (and children, too). First, talk with your child’s pediatrician to be sure there aren’t any issues related to your child’s hearing or development. Once that’s ruled out, there are many things to consider that may help you better understand why this is happening and how you can help.

Four-year-olds are hard at work learning about the world, experimenting with and exerting independence and negotiating their own agendas and the differing agendas of others. All of this occurs as the child continues to need a close connection with parents and help understanding expectations.

Although it may seem that your child is deliberately ignoring you or being disrespectful, children this age still are learning the skills of paying attention and following through with requests.

It’s important to remember that teaching these skills takes time, and having a teaching mindset can help us stay calm and patient in our parenting.

Children need preparation and help in shifting from one activity to another, especially when they’re enjoying what they’re doing. There are other reasons a child may not be responding to you. Keep an eye out for possible contributing factors: Does the lapse in listening usually occur when your child is playing? When you’re in a hurry? At a specific time of day? In public?

Identifying patterns helps us understand why the behavior is occurring and gives us opportunities to be proactive and make changes in our routine to support his or her responsiveness.

Parents don’t want to feel as though they’re constantly telling their child what to do, and, yes, it’s important to carefully pick our battles. There are times when it’s especially important for children to listen. Here’s how to support your child in listening and responding:

• Get down on your child’s level. Children respond best when instructions are given to them directly.

• Encourage eye contact, but don’t demand it. Avoid insisting on eye contact, which can be overwhelming for some children.

• Be direct. In a kind and firm voice, let your child know, “I need you to do this right now.”

• Explain why your request/instruction is important. Four-year-olds need reminders to help them learn expectations (and some may need more reminders than others).

• Be patient with yourself and your child. It takes time to make change, and it’s easier said than done.

Exerting independence and negotiating with others are key parts of a child’s development. We want children to grow up with the skills to be independent and accomplish their goals. But when they’re young, it can be overwhelming for them and for parents.

Birth to Five Helpline: 1-877-705-KIDS (5437)

Southwest Human Development provides this free resource for anyone — parents, grandparents, caregivers and even medical professionals — with questions or concerns about young children. Bilingual and compassionate early-childhood specialists are available from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday. Common topics include: challenging behaviors, potty training, child development, sleep issues, colic or fussiness, feeding and nutrition and overall parenting concerns. Download the Birth to Five Helpline app (iTunes App Store or Google Play) to one-click call, text or email a question. Visit

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