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Home Family Parenting Advice Selective Hearing—Good Parenting

Selective Hearing—Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Why don’t my children listen to me? Their hearing is perfectly functional for whispered conversations to each other during a scary movie. I understand that it’s hard for me to get their attention when the tv is on or when the tween has her headphones on with her music. But even if one is reading a book and the other is building with Legos I have to be in their faces to get their attention. I try not to yell, but by the third or fourth time calling them to dinner, my voice is on high volume.

Can You Hear Me Now?

Dear CYHMN.,

Selective hearing is indeed a condition that can exist in children. This is the process of screening out, essentially ignoring, the questions, comments, or directives of another person, particularly a parent. A child is most likely to do this when her mind is actively processing more urgent or interesting information, and or when the message is unwanted or the tone of the adult voice itself is unpleasant.

Timing
The activities you mentioned – watching tv, listening to music, reading a book, and building with Legos – all require a child’s focused attention. Some brains are able to tune in simultaneously to more than one sound, but most brains prioritize one sound over the “background noise” until that priority no longer exists. An analogy would be missing a turn if you are engaged in conversation or deep in thought while driving.

Time your announcements as the broadcasters do – not to interrupt the regular programming unless it is an emergency. If you wait until the end of the show, the end of the song, the end of the chapter, or the triumphant completion of the Lego creation, you are more likely to be heard.

Touch
It sometimes helps to enter a child’s consciousness with a gentle touch. It will take trial and error to learn the best spot on each child’s body. Choices include: head, shoulders, knees, and toes. If she has very ticklish knees, for example, your abrupt touch would be too great of a disturbance. One child might do well with a playful tap from your toe to hers, just hard enough to have her look up. You don’t want to startle your otherwise engaged child, rather you only want to get her to switch her focus.

If your child associates this special touch with mentally connecting with you, this means of physical communication can be a treasured part of your relationship, unique to each child.

Turn Down the Volume
Save raising your voice for emergencies. Good teachers use whispering effectively to quiet a group of gabbing students. Parents can whisper, too. You might poke your head in the room with a “Psst!” and then, when her eyes lock on yours, continue with the announcement, question, or request without using your vocal chords – just use a whisper. Remain in position until your presence is acknowledged. (Use a second “Psst!” if you have to.) Only give your message when your child’s eyes are on your face. This will train her brain to pick up on the visual stimulation of your appearance accompanied by the whisper. Instead of getting in her face, you’ve alerted her to put her gaze on yours with full attention. This works because we have to listen harder to a whisper than to a scream.

Two-way Channel
How often have you given a message and received a head nod, or a thumbs up, or an “Uh-huh” only to have to return to repeat yourself because the child has ignored what you said? Engage in some back and forth to establish a solid track for two-way communication. This can start a few minutes before you need her to do something. Give her a decision or a commitment to make. A verbal response, more than “Uh-huh”, confirms that your message is being processed by the child’s brain and will result in an action.

Examples would be:
“Do you want peas and carrots in the soup, or just carrots?”
“Can you finish up in 5 minutes or do you need 10?”
“If you’re still thinking of going outside later, you’ll need to locate a sweatshirt. Where will you look for one?”

In this way that which may have formerly been perceived as a command (to be ignored until you get irritated and have to raise your voice), is now experienced as a dialogue

Effective communication requires both transmission and reception. Open up the process to include your child through thoughtful timing, a gentle touch, a quiet voice, and a chance to connect her thoughts with yours.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist  and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Read more of her Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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