This Is Why Your Kid Isn't Listening to You, According to Science

We've all been driven to the ends of our proverbial ropes when our kids refuse to listen to simple instructions, especially when those instructions have to do with health and safety ("Brush your teeth!" "Hold my hand!"). But even if it seems as if your little ones are going out of their way to make you crazy, research shows that kids may be hardwired to resist -- and in the end, that's not such a bad thing.


The inclination to be oppositional is something we're all born with, Dr. Deborah MacNamara, a clinical counselor and director of Kid's Best Bet, a counseling and family resource center, explains in a piece for Motherly. Known as "counterwill" (a term which originated with Viennese psychoanalyst Otto Rank, a student of Freud's), this instinct causes children (and adults) to "resist, counter, and oppose" whenever they feel "controlled or coerced."

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It's a self-protective measure, in some ways, Macnamara explains. "Children are designed to be directed by people they are attached to," she writes, "which makes them prone to resist people who they are not connected to."

But if they're supposed to be more receptive to you, then what's with the screaming refusals to pick up their toys or put on their shoes?

Well, to put it simply, kids' desire to do what they want to do is stronger than their desire to follow our lead. From a developmental perspective, that strength of will is important because it helps kids form their own opinions and identities. From a parental perspective, however, this tendency to be contrary can be quite challenging to deal with.

So how are we supposed to get our kids to cooperate without squashing their emerging sense of self?

The first step, experts say, is to remind ourselves that our kids are doing exactly what they're meant to do -- and not to take it personally when they push back. According to Dr. Rank's original research, counterwill is the "greatest source of insecurity in children," mostly because of the reactions from parents when our authority is challenged. So the way we react plays an important role both in our children's emotional growth and in preserving the parent/child bond.

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When you're trying to get your kids to listen, avoiding power struggles is key. One way to prevent stand-offs is to make sure your kids are actually hearing you in the first place. In a piece for Psychology Today, psychologist, author, and parent coach Erica Reischer, PhD, suggests making eye contact and even some kind of positive physical connection, like a pat on the back while telling kids what you need them to do (rather than just yelling your request into the next room).

If you're sure they've heard you and still don't do what you've asked, she adds, try explaining to them why you need them to follow through: "If we don't get our shoes on now, we'll be late for school and you'll miss circle time." 

If they still refuse to listen (and you can pretty much count on that happening at least some of the time), Reischer recommends letting natural consequences take their course if possible.

"Natural consequences are those that follow without parents having to do anything, such as getting wet feet from wearing flip-flops instead of rain boots, or not having their clothes laundered because they left them on the bedroom floor (again)," Reischer writes.

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Sometimes, of course, natural consequences are too dangerous or inconvenient to allow. In those cases, Reischer says to give kids fair warning about whatever other consequences you'll impose if they don't listen (like not being allowed to go to playgroup the next day because your child won't share his toys). And, if they still won't listen, then it's essential to follow through on those consequences to show your kids you mean business.

Sometimes, of course, kids just aren't going to listen -- and dealing with this is part of parenting. But no matter how frustrated you get, this info is a good reminder to take a step back (and a deep breath) and tell yourself that your kid isn't deliberately trying to make you lose your mind -- she's just being a kid and finding her own voice. And someday, you'll be grateful that she has a strong will. Maybe not today, but someday!

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