When Your Preschooler Ignores You, Should You React?

Sometimes you could swear that your 4 year-old is either deaf or unable to understand your simple directions.  Repeating his name 5 times and getting no response would suggest that something is  wrong.  Some magazines would even suggest that this is a sign of  autism or an auditory processing disorder.  While that can happen, the overall percentage of children for whom that is an accurate diagnosis is small.  Most children are actually very good at hearing and understanding you.  They just don’t always respond.  Watch him at school if you can.  Does he ignore directions from a teacher?  Does he respond to other adults in his life more consistently or more quickly?  If that is so, then your child has developed a habit of ignoring you.  Here is a suggestion: try saying nothing to get your point across.  Even better, try doing nothing, no walking closer to him, no starting to help him follow the directions, nothing.

This strategy works best when your direction or comment has a component that is inherently valuable to him. For example, ” Please pick up your toys” isn’t inspiring, there isn’t anything there that would make a child want to respond.  “It is snack time.  What snack would you like?” should inspire a response, but often your child is involved in something else that is a higher priority to him at the moment.  He assumes that you will work harder to get his attention if you really care about him giving you an answer.  Try making it important to him to communicate with you instead.  Go ahead and make something for yourself, or don’t move toward the snack cabinet.  Do nothing, say nothing until you get a response.  This isn’t about turning the tables on him in a punishing manner, nor is it letting him feel you being “rude” to him.  It is a way to help him learn how to interact to you effectively.

More traditional parenting emphasized the concept that could be best described as “speak when you are spoken to”. Today’s more relaxed parenting style has fewer rigid rules about manners, but it can be maddening when you find yourself begging for an answer from a young child.  It is possible to make it clear that replying to you is how he can best get what he wants.  And it is worth considering that you could also instruct a child that he is behaving like a grown-up when he speaks to you when he is spoken to.

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