Why Is My Child Ignoring Me?

In this episode: A parent writes that her 3-year-old seems to intentionally ignore her when she asks him a question and she has to repeat herself several times. She doesn’t know if he’s misbehaving or if this is a result of his “hyper-focused personality,” and she says she sometimes loses her patience and shouts.

Transcript of “Why Is My Child Ignoring Me?”

Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m responding to an email from a frustrated parent who says she can’t get her three-year-old son to listen to her. She gets impatient, sometimes yells for his attention, and feels offended because it seems like he’s intentionally ignoring her.

Here’s the email I received:

“Hi Janet, I’ve been listening to your podcast for while now and it has really turned on some light bulbs for me regarding my three-year-old son. He’s gone through many wonderful stages and I turn to your podcast when I’m going through a difficult stage. One of the biggest frustrations I’m having right now with my son is getting him to focus and listen. I find myself having to ask a question four to five times before he will listen. Or, even worse, I end up losing my patience and shouting. I’ve tried tricks like saying the word ‘ice cream’ to get him to look up. I’m between two emotions here. I get impatient and also offended. Impatient because of the process it takes to get him to hear me and offended because sometimes it seems like he’s intentionally ignoring me. I’m not sure if this is him misbehaving or just part of his hyper-focused personality. Any suggestions? Thanks.”

Okay, well I thought this would be a good one to respond to because there are a lot of elements she brings up that are really important to understand with toddlers, especially, but really all children across the board. These elements are all centered around understanding our child’s perspective, the way young children view the world, and what is going on with them developmentally. When we understand those things, and when we come from that place of really being able to see from our child’s perspective, then all of these situations become much clearer to us. Handling these situations becomes easier.

Let’s talk about that first for a second… where children are in these early years developmentally and where they’re coming from…

In the toddler years, children are developing as more autonomous people. That is why they often seem to not be, quote, listening. Actually when parents say, “My child isn’t listening,” they usually mean “My child isn’t obeying, my child isn’t doing what I ask, my words aren’t changing my child’s behavior.” It’s not really that the child isn’t listening in terms of hearing us. It’s that they’re not taking the action we want them to take.

Young children, particularly toddlers, have every reason in the world to not do what we ask, to not obey us. They are all about needing to be different from us, to assert themselves as more independent individuals than they felt when they were infants. It’s very healthy for them to say no to us or to not do what we want.

Magda Gerber used to say jokingly that you’ll be holding up an ice cream to a toddler, to a two-year-old, and they say, “No,” as they’re taking the ice cream cone. Understanding that they’re going to go into that resistant place very easily, and that children are inclined to say no to even things they want like an ice cream cone (because that’s how important just for them to assert themselves as individuals), helps us to not push them into that place. It’s just not going to work. Therefore, repeating ourselves is never a good idea. It’s never going to help. It’s only going to push our child further and further into resistant mode.

This mom doesn’t give examples. But let’s take an example, like her child is playing with his toys and she says, “It’s lunch time. I put your lunch out. I want you to come.” He says nothing. He doesn’t even look up. Repeating that is definitely not going to help because he’s already showing that he is feeling resistant and, of course, maybe he is very focused on something and I’ll talk about that in a minute. Maybe he is engaged in what he’s doing, which obviously we want to encourage.

Repeatedly asking our children to do something will never work. It doesn’t make them suddenly shift out of defiance and into cooperation. It definitely doesn’t work for us, because we are going to get more frustrated and impatient, and maybe angry when we are repeating ourselves to no avail.

Now, how do we help a child to cooperate? We do it by understanding and respecting the fact that they are involved in something, and why would they want to switch out of that?

Transitions of all kinds are really hard for toddlers, because they’ve got all this internal transition going on and now someone’s asking me to stop doing what I’m doing, shift gears. I’m not even a toddler and I don’t really want to do it. Just let me stay where I am. I’m comfortable here. I want to keep doing what I’m doing.

We have to respect and understand that. Understanding will dictate the way that we ask, the tone that we have. We obviously don’t want to be barking orders at our children. That’s going to put them into defensive mode. We want to be on their team. We want to understand them and speak politely to them, not start out already irritated because my child didn’t do this the last time. Those things will push our child into their corner of resistance.

First, we would acknowledge. “Hey, I see you’re doing that. It’s really time to come to dinner now, though, so, I’m going to ask you to stop and help me put this away, so we can go to dinner.”

Our child is ignoring us, let’s say, right there. “Ah, shoot. I know. It’s really hard to stop doing that. I get it. I’m going to help you pick this stuff up, we’re going to put it away, and I’m going take your hand. Come on. We’re going to go to dinner now.”

Then let’s say our child even then puts the brakes on. “Oh, shoot. You really don’t want to go. I hear you. I’m going to pick you up and bring you over to where dinner is, and then you get to decide if you want it or not. And if you don’t, then you can go back and play in your room.”

I wouldn’t say that as a threat, because it really isn’t a threat. It’s just an honest choice that we’re giving our child, person to person, in this relationship of understanding our child — being on your child’s team this way, being somebody that understands them rather than gets offended by them when they do these normal, typical resistant things that young children do.

And they have their reasons, developmental reasons are just one of them, but they have other reasons, too. They have uncomfortable feelings that they want to share with us and they don’t even know that they want to do this. It’s unconscious. So, they want to maybe yell at us while we pick them up and bring them over to check out their dinner. They just want to yell. They just want to release some of the feelings they have inside them. It really has nothing to do with us. But we can exacerbate the situation by speaking to them in a manner that puts them on the defensive, that creates a power struggle.

This parent says, “One of the biggest frustrations I’m having with my son is getting him to focus and listen.” Getting him to focus and listen is really impossible. It’s something that only he can do because he wants to. I would let go of that as a goal, because the more we try to get a child to do something, the further they push us away. Focusing and listening is the result of our relationship, through bonding with our child, not through tricks like saying the word ‘ice cream.’ I haven’t heard of that one! That’s pretty funny. I can understand resorting to something like that as a desperate measure to try to get a child’s attention. But children see through these tricks very easily. If we’re tricking our child, our child is going to win, because they sense our agenda. They’re very intuitive that way.

Asking a question repeatedly doesn’t work. Saying the word ‘ice cream’ or using another kind of trick isn’t going to work. Losing our patience and shouting is definitely not going to work and get him to do what she wants him to do. It doesn’t feel good as a parent to go there. It actually creates more of a chasm between us, because it’s scary for our child when we lose our patience and shout. That can create more of a need for our child to express those feelings back to us by pushing up against our boundaries like saying, “No, I’m not going to stop playing,” or “I’m not going to leave the park,” another common example.

Even if it’s something that seems totally ridiculous to us like (and, hey, we’ve been here), I took them all over to these places and did wonderful things with them, and gave them my undivided attention, and we had sweets, and now they’re saying, “No, I’m not going to come to the car!

It’s really easy to get offended by that. Right? Because on an adult level, that is offensive. But when it’s a child who has very little ability to monitor when they’ve gone too far, when they’ve gotten too tired, when they’ve had too many sweets, they can’t control their emotions. We can’t approach them as we would an adult or even an older child. Yes, they deserve the same respect, and kindness, and politeness as we would give an adult, but our expectations for them cannot be the same. What can seem very unfair to us is, actually, that our expectation is unfair. Our understanding of their perspective and where they’re coming from is off.

I really hear this parent saying she’s between two emotions, impatient and also offended. Yeah. Those are all really uncomfortable places for us to go. We can avoid it. That’s the interesting thing. Not completely, not 100%, not perfectly. We are going to forget. We’re going to forget how sensitive our children are to stimulation, and how easily to get overtired, and how quickly they go from full to way too hungry, and how they can’t just smile and say, “Okay, I really don’t want to go, but I’ll go with you.” We are going to forget. But if most of the time we can remind ourselves of these things, we won’t have to go down that road of repeatedly asking, and then now trying to trick you, getting louder and louder, I’m getting more angry, I’m impatient, I’m frustrated, I’m offended. It really is up to us to not go there.

Oftentimes in my work with parents, I notice (and I know this from my own experience of course as well), that one of the stumbling blocks is that (and maybe we don’t even realize this consciously), we’re trying to avoid the explosion. If we went in with confidence as a momma or poppa bear, took our child’s hand and said, “I know you want to do this, but we are going. I’m going to pick you up,” and we do it right away, there’s a very good chance we’re going to get screamed at. But avoiding that by trying to get our child to just do it without expressing resistance or making a fuss is actually going to put us into dysregulation. It doesn’t work.

We can actually be happier, more confident parents in these situations by facing the music and knowing how healthy it is for our child to blast their feelings out while we’re helping them, moving them where we need to move them, not roughly, not angrily. We know getting yelled at is part of our job. We see it as strong. We see it as healthy. We see it as a venting of a lot of things that have gone on that day or maybe for days before that or weeks before that. Those times that we did lose our temper at them, that’s going to need to come back out of our child. Whenever children have these explosive reactions, there’s always a reason. We may never know the reason. But it’s never because our child is just a brat, or mean, or offensive. It’s an uncomfortable feeling our child needs to get out of their body.

Instead of trying to get children to listen and focus, be the leader. Take physical action right away. Words alone cannot direct them. They need more. They need us to be hands on parents. Help them through.

It’s interesting, because at the end she’s not sure if this is him misbehaving or just part of his hyper-focused personality. She does maybe have a focused child, although I do think he hears her, because children hear everything, especially what we say as parents, but he may be very positively engaged in something.

I wouldn’t interrupt needlessly. I would notice what he is doing and respect that, and then consider do we really need to go right now or can I wait a couple of minutes? Not dragging it on because we want to avoid our child expressing feelings, but valuing that focused attention our child is giving, because focus and attention are higher order learning skills that we want to encourage in our children.

Why do children focus on those things? Because they choose them. Focus is about attraction. It can’t be forced. If we say, “Here. I want you to do this now. Play with this toy,” our child is not likely to get as focused on that as he would if he chose to focus on it himself, if it was meaningful to him, something he wanted to learn about. We definitely want to encourage those opportunities as much as possible throughout the day. But then when we do need to gain cooperation from our child, we understand that they need our help and assistance with that.

I hope some of those suggestions help. Thank you so much for listening.

Also, both of my books are available on audio at Audible, Elevating Child Care and No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame. You can get both audio books for free with a 30-day trial membership by using the link in the liner notes of this podcast. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.

We can do this.

6 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I opened this article because I am having the same issue but not with “obeying”. I will ask a simple question that has no action tied to it or no “request”. Any advice for this situation?

      1. Do you want a snack?
        How was your day at grandma’s?
        Would you like to go to the park today?
        I guess any questions that aren’t seemingly demanding.

        1. I, too, have this happen with my tween/8 year old! I’m also curious to hear this explained. Hard to connect in conversation with a seemingly “uninterested” party. Connecting happens randomly for us. I understand that it can’t be forced on command and that it also helps to show interest in what she is interested in. However, relationships are ulitimately more than a one way street. I hope it’s simply the age and stage and she’ll grow out of it so that she will develop meaningful and deeper bonds with us and other (obviously not all) people over time…through mutual courtesy, respect, etc..

  2. Hi, Janet! I love reading/listening to your work, it is truly inspiring to work to become better. I’m hoping for some expansion on two things.
    1: Does this method apply to 6 year olds? (the physically moving them to where they need to be)
    2: In regards to your quote – “Oh, shoot. You really don’t want to go. I hear you. I’m going to pick you up and bring you over to where dinner is, and then you get to decide if you want it or not. And if you don’t, then you can go back and play in your room.” I feel like giving this option to my kids would automatically be that they’d rather go play but then they would expect to be fed later on where as I believe it is important to sit down as a family together and also, I’m not ok with preparing food whenever the kids feel like it because then I’d be in the kitchen all day! Also, soon after dinner we start our unreasonably long-feeling bedtime routine so it seems like feeding them later would drag that out even longer. Thoughts? Thanks!

  3. avatar Erica Reed says:

    Similar to the above comments… I have a 5.5 year old who is doing exactly the same thing. Too busy/too focused on playing and unwilling to stop for dinner/whatever that needs to get done. I give him a five minute warning before time is up. I tell him when he starts playing that he only has X amount of time to play/show him on the clock when time is up… No help. Still selectively deaf when it is dinner time until I lose my mind and yell.

    Or I tell him that we need to leave the house in just a few minutes so he needs to run upstairs and change out of jammies… Quick, quick, quick. “We took our time eating breakfast so now we need to move super fast and get ready so we aren’t late.”. 10 min later I go upstairs and he hasn’t even started. SO FRUSTRATING! he is perfectly capable of getting himself change in about 90 seconds, when he chooses to. I let him take his time eating and didn’t try to rush him but now we have to get moving… I completely understand the advice in your podcast about how to handle it with a three-year-old but by the time a kid is nearly six they need to understand that there is a time to take it easy and there’s a time when you need to move with a purpose…

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