Why your kids don’t hear you

Are they ignoring you or selectively listening? The truth is more complicated.

Welcome to Is My Kid the Asshole?, a newsletter from science and parenting journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer, which you can read more about here. If you like it, please subscribe and/or share this post with someone else who would too.

Dear Is My Kid the Asshole,

Help! My kids don’t listen to me. I will literally be five feet away from them and yell their name 18 times before they respond. And if they’re on the iPad or Switch, forget it — nothing gets through. I can’t figure out if they’re ignoring me or just practicing selective hearing. What should I do?

Best,

HELLO?

Dear HELLO?,

I’m so glad you asked this, because my kids’ inability to listen has been driving me bonkers, too. My six-year-old will be doing an art project three feet away from me but act like she’s encased in soundproof glass when I ask her a question. My son and I will be mid-conversation when he’ll suddenly float into ten-year-old la-la-land and stop hearing me. What gives?

To find out, I called up Lori Leibold, director of the Human Auditory Development Lab at the Boys Town National Research Hospital in Nebraska, and Emily Buss, an auditory science researcher at the UNC School of Medicine. What they told me was largely reassuring. If your kid is under the age of, say, 13, you can largely blame biology for their selective hearing; they’re probably not trying to be jerks. (After age 13 … well, you know.)

As Leibold explained to me, kids’ ears actually work quite well from the time they’re six months old (unless, of course, your child has hearing loss — more on that later). “In many ways, the auditory system comes online even before the visual system,” Leibold said.

Their brains, on the other hand, aren’t always adept at handling the information their ears receive — they don’t do a good job of telling kids what to pay attention to. “Kids don't know what the important sounds are in their environment yet,” Buss explained, so they’re kind of all over the place. By the time kids are school-aged, they’re starting to develop the ability to discern between the important and not-so-important things they hear, she said, but they still haven’t mastered the ability to allocate their attention properly.

Kids are especially bad at listening when there’s other noise in the background. Studies have shown that kids under the age of ten have more trouble than adults do discerning sounds when there are white-noise-like sounds in the background, like the hum of a refrigerator, air conditioner or dishwasher. And we really set our kids up to fail when we ask them to listen to us when there are other voices in the background, like from iPads or radios or other people. When researchers ask kids to listen and repeat back words they hear over the sound of a few people talking, they have a much harder time doing it than adults do. “We sometimes see effects that are an order of magnitude worse,” Buss said. This isn’t just a little kid problem, either. These issues “persist well into the teenage years — 13, 14, 15,” Leibold added.

Consider that for a second. It’s hard enough for me hear what other people are saying at cocktail parties (remember those?), but kids are a whopping order of magnitude worse at it than we are. The next time I try to get my daughter’s attention while she’s watching PJ Masks or frolicking with other kids at the playground, I’m going to keep this in mind. These findings have important implications for school, too — if kids are trying to listen to their teacher over the hum of an air conditioner or passing subway cars or other kids chattering, it can be much harder for them than we expect. (And if their language skills aren’t fully developed, or if they have poor working memory, they’ll also have a difficult time filling in the gaps if they miss a few words.)

What can you do to make it easier for your kids to hear you? And when should you worry about hearing loss or auditory processing problems? Here are three science-based suggestions.

  1. Minimize the background noise.

If your kids aren’t responding to you, ask yourself whether your voice is competing with too much background noise. Air conditioners, washing machines, dishwashers and other seemingly innocuous forms of background noise can make it harder for your kids to decipher what you’re saying. Most importantly: Turn off the TV and radio. If your kids can’t hear you in the car, maybe it’s because your voice is competing with Terry Gross. “The more acoustic chaos there is, the harder it is for a child to pay attention to what you're saying,” Buss said.

  1. Use more than just your voice to get your child’s attention.

Rather than repeatedly bark at your kid from across the room (what? I nevvver do that), consider touching your child lightly on the arm or shoulder as you speak to them. Or “get in front of them, at their level, looking at them,” Leibold suggested, so that they have a visual cue in addition to an auditory one. I love these suggestions from psychologist Laura Markham:

Get down on your child's level and touch him lightly. Observe what he's doing and connect with him by making a comment about it: "Wow, look at that train go!" Brain research has found that when we feel connected to another person, we're more open to their influence, so by connecting first, you're making it easy for him to listen to you. But you aren't manipulating, you're acknowledging, and respecting, what's important to him.

Wait until he looks up. Look him in the eye. Then start talking. If he doesn't look up, make sure you have his attention by asking "Can I tell you something?" When he looks up, then start talking.

  1. If you’re worried about your kid’s hearing, get it checked.

Two to three children out of 1000 are born with hearing loss, and kids can also have temporary hearing loss, especially when they have fluid in their ears, which is common after a respiratory infection. Signs of hearing loss include delayed speech, not following directions (pretty sure that this also a sign of… just being a kid), and often asking “huh?” If you’re worried about your child’s hearing, it’s worth getting it checked out, Leibold said — either at the pediatrician’s office or by seeing an otologist or audiologist.

There’s another hearing-related diagnosis called Auditory Processing Disorder. It’s controversial, in part because it’s hard to know where the continuum of normal auditory processing ends and the disorder begins. According to the Child Mind Institute, APD can have a variety of symptoms, including the following:

  • Doesn’t pick up nursery rhymes or song lyrics

  • Has trouble following directions

  • Doesn’t remember details of what she’s heard

  • Appears to be listening but not hearing

  • Often mistakes two similar-sounding words

  • Has difficulty understanding speech in noisy environments

  • Has trouble learning to read and spell

  • Finds it hard to follow conversations

  • Finds it hard to express himself clearly

  • Frequently asks people to repeat what they’ve said

If you’re concerned your child might have APD, talk to your pediatrician or see an audiologist. Keep in mind, though, that the disorder can be hard to reliably diagnose before the age of seven or eight. And remember that even healthy kids with excellent hearing struggle with these skills. “All children have auditory processing deficits relative to adults,” Leibold said. “What we hear is just not what they're hearing.”

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