Playfulness to repair when your child says, “I’m not listening to you!”

Has your child ever said, “I’m not listening to you!”? Maybe complete with hands over their ears, humming or singing to themselves, and turning away from you?

It can be quite challenging for us parents to hear! Our feelings might range from mildly frustrated to completely infuriated.

It can trigger a sense of powerlessness in us – if our child won’t even listen to us, then how can we get through to them? How can we make things happen?

Well, in my experience, when a child says, “I’m not listening to you”, it often comes after a time when they are NOT FEELING HEARD themselves.

👉 Perhaps we haven’t given them much of our warm attention lately, and provided them with the space to express their feelings and needs?

👉 They might feel that we’re not truly understanding and empathising with them, or taking their point of view into consideration?

👉 Or maybe we’ve been doing a bit too much of the talking with our child lately? Or lecturing them? And they feel bombarded?

Some other possibilities are that:

👉 They might not be feeling the strength of connection, the sense that we value and love them, that they need in order to feel willing to listen to us?

👉 Or maybe our tone of voice is triggering the part of their brain that detects threat, and so they just don’t feel safe enough to be able to listen?

When they refuse to listen to us, our kids probably just have important attachment needs that are not being met: to be heard, considered, valued, connected, respected and emotionally safe. They might be feeling sad, angry, or overwhelmed, and powerless to get their needs met.

So, they are acting out their feelings and exerting their power in a way they can, through refusing to listen to us! And the more insistent we are that they listen to us, the less likely it is that they will be willing or able to do so.

Image courtesy of Freepik.


One way to shift the dynamic is using PLAY! And I think one of the best kinds of play in this situation is ROLE REVERSAL!

We playfully act out being in the LESS powerful position (that our child has likely been in), of wanting to be heard, but feeling powerless to make it happen.

And we playfully encourage them to take the MORE powerful position (that we are more likely to be in usually), of not listening.

We can do some mock BEGGING, really hamming it up, “Aw, please will you listen to me? Please? Oh, please will you listen?”.

Maybe kneeling down on the ground and GROVELLING? And perhaps doing some MOCK CRYING? “Boo hoo hoo, I just really want you to listen to me. Whyyyy? Whyyy won’t you listen to me?”.

We could also shift into some ridiculous BARGAINING (possibly throwing in some RHYMING for good measure!).

“Will you listen to me if I do a jig? Will you listen to me if I snort like a pig?”. And don’t forget to do the actions, to make ourselves look even more foolish (and emotionally safe in our child’s eyes).

Our kids might start to engage with the game, telling us what we need to do in order for them to listen. It can be great fun to playfully enact their “conditions”! And to watch them laugh with glee as they relish having control over making us do all kinds of silly things!

With this kind of playfulness, the aim is to strengthen our CONNECTION and help our kids to RELEASE STRESS AND PAINFUL FEELINGS through laughter. Seeing us in this less powerful position is usually a welcome change for our kids, and it can bring lots of giggles, which helps to dissolve stress and tension!

It might also touch a sweet spot in our kids from a time that they felt desperate to have us listen to them. The laughter that is elicited from hearing you pleading can be healing, by helping kids offload any hurt feelings that they’re still carrying from that occasion.

Our “playful mode” communicates a sense of SAFETY to our child’s nervous system. And the play can also help to meet some of our child’s needs, such as to feel heard, considered and empowered!

Other than that, there is no “agenda”, we are not trying to push for a certain outcome (e.g. for them to listen to us). We can keep playing for as long as it’s fun for everyone!

After this boost in connection, it is possible that our child will be more willing to listen to us. But at the very least, it is likely to leave us feeling more connected and in a better mood to get on with our day.

And if, after having a chance to sit with and process our own emotions, there is still a need to discuss the “issue”, we can raise it with our child later. Once we are feeling more relaxed, and the sense of connection between us is stronger, the discussion might go more smoothly.

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