What to Do When Your Kid Isn’t Listening

with Penny Williams

Let’s talk about what to do when your kid isn’t listening. Remember, they might be processing your words in non-traditional ways, so it’s important to find alternative approaches to help them focus, process, and follow through. From recognizing distractions to accommodating slow processing speeds, I offer practical advice to help parents navigate these complex situations, including how to engage them physically, provide written instructions, and be mindful of their individual needs. By understanding these hurdles and meeting your kid where they are, you can foster better communication and cooperation. Join me!

3 key takeaways:
    1. Kids may be listening and processing information in non-traditional ways, such as while engaged in an activity or without making eye contact.
    2. Avoid repeating yourself or nagging if you feel like your kid isn’t listening, as pressure can cause them to shut down. Instead, find alternative ways to help them pay attention and process instructions.
    3. Be mindful of potential reasons for apparent inattentiveness, such as distractions, slow processing speed, dysregulation, and poor executive functioning. Adjust your communication and support strategies accordingly to meet your child where they are.

You’ll Learn

  • Gain Their Attention: Use gentle physical actions, such as resting a hand on their shoulder or getting on their eye level, to engage your child and ensure their focus and attention before speaking to them.

  • Write Down Instructions: For children with executive functioning and working memory challenges, writing down instructions on a note card or using a habit tracking app can help make tasks more manageable and remove the need for repeated verbal instructions.

  • Wait for Regulation: If a child is dysregulated and their thinking brain is offline, wait before giving instructions or teaching skills. Be a calm anchor for the child and offer assistance when they are ready.

These strategies are designed to support neurodivergent kids, teens, and young adults in processing information and responding in ways that work best for them.


  • Habit Tracker app (this is the one I’ve been using and enjoying)

  • Subscribe to Clarity — my weekly newsletter to help you get clear on how to be the parent your neurodivergent kid needs.

  • Work with me to level up your parenting — online parent training and coaching  for neurodiverse families.

Some of the resources may be affiliate links, meaning I receive a commission (at no cost to you) if you use that link to make a purchase.


Penny Williams [00:00:03]: Very often, they are listening, they are processing, and we just don't recognize that because they're not doing it in those traditional ways that we often expect. So your kid may be listening and processing what you're saying while they are also turned their body away from you and building with Legos. Welcome to the Beautifully Complex podcast, where I share insights and strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids straight from the trenches. I'm your host, Penny Williams. I'm a parenting coach, author, and mindset mama, honored to guide you on the journey of raising your atypical kid. Let's get started. Welcome back to the Beautifully Complex podcast. I'm so happy to have you here.

Penny Williams [00:01:00]: I want to talk to you a little bit today about what to do when you feel like your kid isn't listening, and I say you feel like because sometimes they are listening, they are processing what they're saying, what we're saying, they are paying attention, but they're not showing it in those traditional ways that we expect, like eye contact, like turning and looking toward us at least, like responding to us in a somewhat meaningful time frame. Right? And there are so many reasons why this might be happening and we have some really good tools and strategies that we can use in these cases. So when you feel like your kid isn't listening, don't continue to repeat yourself because, honestly, that makes people tune out, and they're going to be sure that they're not listening and responding to you. Right? That feeling of nagging doesn't feel good, and it creates a lot of pressure. And for a lot of our kids, pressure makes them shut down. So the more you ramp up that pressure, the less doable things become for them. It's really important to recognize that because then you have to step back from repeating, from nagging and find another way to sort of break through. Right? To help them to be able to pay attention, listen to what you're saying, and succeed at processing that and following through.

Penny Williams [00:02:43]: Right? We want to often give our kids instructions, and we don't realize that we are creating moments where no matter what we do, they can't succeed. We are not making it doable. You know, I talk so much here on the podcast and in all the work that I do with parents about making things doable for our kids. We're meeting them where they are. We're understanding what works and doesn't work for them, and we are putting into place tools and strategies that help them to succeed and in the future, be able to use them without us. And I'm gonna talk a little bit more about that in just a minute. But I wanna start with, you know, understanding what is really happening. Why are they not listening? That can be for many different reasons.

Penny Williams [00:03:38]: And first, again, I want to reiterate that very often, they are listening, they are processing, and we just don't recognize that because they're not doing it in those traditional ways that we often expect, So your kid may be listening and processing what you're saying while they are also turned their body away from you and building with Legos or watching a YouTube video even. You know, my kids have YouTube videos running in the background and they can also hear me and process and respond, which sort of blows my mind because I can't do that, but they can, and so we have to recognize that sometimes our kids are listening, they are processing, they are going to respond if a response is required, but they're doing it in a different way than we expect. And it's really just important to learn that about your child, if that's true for your child, and recognize that when it's happening. So you're not saying to your kid, you're not listening to me when actually they are listening to you. They're just not showing it in a way that you're picking up on. Another reason why it may feel like a kid isn't listening to you is that they are just too distracted in the environment, and so they're not either able to hone in and focus on what you're saying or they're not able to process it and respond. And, you know, we're gonna talk about some strategies for that. But again, you need to be aware as the parent, educator, caregiver, you know, the adult in the room that sometimes the environment is going to keep a kid from hearing you, from listening to you because it is not conducive for that kid to be able to do that.

Penny Williams [00:05:30]: Again, it's not doable for them in that environment. Another thing is slow processing speed. Your kid could be listening. They could be processing. They could be intending to respond to you, but they're unable to do it in that quick time frame that you expect. This is something that was very true for my own kid, and he didn't immediately respond to me when I talked to him. And me, the super quick, let's fire it off, get a ton, you know, fix everything right away, I didn't have the patience because I didn't recognize that I needed it. It felt to me, you know, it felt in my core, like he just wasn't listening to me.

Penny Williams [00:06:15]: But actually, he was. He just needed more time to process and respond. And when I started counting to 5 in my own head, when I said something to my kid that I needed a response from, he was responding to me. I didn't have to keep repeating myself. I didn't have to nag. I just needed to give him more time, and I wasn't counting out loud, don't mistake me here. I was not counting down to him to give me a response. I was just counting internally to make sure that I was providing enough time for him to process before I said anything else and piled on.

Penny Williams [00:06:57]: Because if I keep repeating myself when my kid is still processing, then it disrupts that processing, and now they're not able to respond to me. And I've removed that doability. Right? I've made it not doable to process a response. So be sure that you are giving that kid enough time. And this goes for teens and young adults, any age. If someone has a slower processing speed, they just need more time. Another reason it may feel like a kid isn't listening to you is because they're dysregulated. When we as human beings of any age get dysregulated, our thinking brain becomes less and less and less available to us and eventually becomes completely unavailable.

Penny Williams [00:07:53]: It is completely not accessible when we get super dysregulated. What happens is our emotional brain or our survival brain or both take over, we get flooded in those areas, and we can no longer access any of the things that our thinking brain does. No rational thought, no logic, no processing language. Hello? That means they cannot respond to you when you talk to them. Okay? So sometimes your kid is so dysregulated that they cannot access the part of their brain they need to process language and formulate a response. You need to be able to be aware of when that's happening because that requires something different from you. And I'm gonna go into the strategies here for you and talk about what can you do in these different instances. So sometimes your kid is hearing you, and you don't know it.

Penny Williams [00:08:59]: You can't tell in traditional ways. So something you can do to ensure that you have their focus and attention before you start speaking to them is just to walk over and maybe, you know, rest your hand on their shoulder. This is all just gentle physical actions to engage your kid. I'm not talking about grabbing their shoulders and forcing them to look you in the eye. I'm just saying walk over, put a gentle hand on their shoulder. Something very gentle and physical that helps them to take note that you're looking for their attention. Right? With younger kids, kneel down, bend down, get on their eye level. Get eye to eye with them.

Penny Williams [00:09:50]: Now this doesn't mean that we're expecting eye contact from them. We are just trying to come into their field of view to get their attention. So if you do that and it's uncomfortable, they're turning away, it's okay. It's okay because when you knelt down, you got their attention. If the eye contact is uncomfortable for them, you know, you can look down, you can turn your head, they can also look down or turn their head. You can also even back up some, you know, be aware of what their comfort level is with you being right there in front of them. Right? Be very mindful of that as well. But, again, they don't have to look you in the eye when you kneel down.

Penny Williams [00:10:42]: Just the act of that, of getting on their eye level on that sort of same plane is going to grab their attention, and then you'll have their attention to speak to them, to give them instructions, whatever you're trying do. Right? You'll know that they are going to be able to hear you and process that you have just gained their attention, right, their focus. Another thing when you're giving instructions is to write it down. Write it down. So many of our kids have struggles with executive functioning, working memory. Right? If you tell your kid to go do a, b, and c, and they walk away, do they often get lost before they do b or c, or even maybe a? Right? Write things down. Put it on a note card. Put it on a Post it note.

Penny Williams [00:11:34]: Hand it to them. If they struggle with multiple steps, write down the first step, hand it to them, and have them go and take care of that and come back. You can even write on the bottom of it, Come back to me when you finish this. Right? That helps because if you're giving verbal instruction and it's not working, then it's not doable. If it's not doable, we need to insert some sort of strategy or tool to make it doable. That's what writing instructions down can do for your kid. And then eventually, you're wanting to find a way to remove yourself from that. So are there apps where your kid might engage more in something technological, electronic? There are habit tracking apps.

Penny Williams [00:12:23]: I use one for myself to build routines for things that I'm working on for myself. You can support your kid using that and eventually remove yourself so that they are independent with these things, but also if you're writing something down, you're removing yourself further from that process because you have made it doable where you don't need to continue to repeat verbal instructions. That's what I mean by that. So if your kid is dysregulated and their thinking brain is offline, then you need to wait. Now if this is a safety issue and you need to get information into them right away because they are in danger or creating danger for others, then that goes out the window. You need to do what you need to do to keep people safe. But, you know, if they're dysregulated and they are safe, there's not a physical danger, then you need to wait to speak to them until they are regulated. You need to wait to ask them to do something.

Penny Williams [00:13:25]: You need to wait to give instructions. You need to wait to teach skills. That time when they're dysregulated is not the time for talking. It is the time for being present, being a calm anchor, letting your kid know that you're there and you want to help them when they're ready, and then you wait. So sometimes, yes, your kid isn't listening but it's because they can't. They just can't, and we need to know that and we need to honor that. The only way forward successfully is to honor what our kids need in those moments, But I promise you, just focusing a little bit on putting a hand on their shoulder, giving them verbal instructions, understanding that they can be listening to you without making eye contact is super, super helpful, and it will move you forward. So if you feel like your kid is not listening to you, ask yourself, is that really true? Could it be something else? And if your answer to could it be something else is yes, your next question is, what else could it be? Could it be a distraction? Could it be the environment? Could it be poor executive functioning skills? Could it be that they have slow processing speed? Could it be that they need written instruction? Right? Could it be that they're dysregulated and they need help or time or both to calm down and get their thinking brain back online? That's what I want you to ask yourself in these moments, and I think that you will find that you will feel more and more like your kid actually is listening to you when you are mindfully aware of these different potential hurdles, and you are meeting your kid where they are.

Penny Williams [00:15:23]: For the show notes for this episode, you can visit parentingADHDandautism.com/258 for episode 258. I will see you on the next episode. Take good care. Thanks for joining me on the Beautifully Complex podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share, and don't forget to check out my online courses and parent coaching at parentingadhdandautsism.com and at thebehaviorrevolution.com.

Thanks for joining me!

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