When children live in their own world

Find out what to do when children live in their own world and don’t do what you say, and learn about two types of communication that get through to young children

Sometimes it seems like she can’t even hear me. She lives in her own world, and nothing can make her do something she doesn’t want to do. I’ve already told her. I repeat it several times, and she still doesn’t do what I say. I feel like she doesn’t care.

“...I think it could really work, but when I try it on my daughter, I feel like she doesn’t even care and is just off in her own little world...”

“...I want to make an agreement with him, I keep asking what he needs and trying to explain everything to him, but I feel like he doesn’t even register what I’m saying...”

- from our inbox

Any of this sound familiar? Let’s go take a peek into “their world” and find out why children sometimes act like they can’t hear or see us. You’ll also read about two things you can do right away to get their attention back.

If you’ve given up...

If you’ve already tried every trick in the book, and nothing works on your child, then it’s no wonder you’re fed up. Or maybe you’ve given up hope. There’s no getting through to that child...

Most parents – tired or disappointed and discouraged because things never seem to go right with their little one – fail to realize that their child actually feels the same way they do. Fed up. Or already gave up. And that’s what we call a vicious cycle.

...and now you want to change things

Do you want to change things? If your answer is YES, then I’m glad you are reading this article. Because we’re about to talk about how to make the first step and break the cycle.

How to take the first step out of the vicious cycle

Parents who have been through it all agree that the first step is the most important. That’s what helped them transform all those situations where they felt like their child wasn’t even in the same room with them. Because the child just wouldn’t do anything they said, no matter how many times they said it.

You may see the change very quickly

“After I changed my approach I realized my son isn’t actually terrible, naughty and uncontrollable, and that I’m not any of those things either :) I’ve been in the course for three weeks and the changes are quite remarkable ;)”

- Jitka, from the Unparenting course

The most important thing in situations that keep repeating

Before we get started, let’s have a look at the two things 99% of parents do when their children don’t listen and seem to live in their own world.

They repeat everything over and over

Hoping against hope that their child will finally see the light, well-meaning parents wear themselves out by day and sigh in frustration by night, wrung out like an old towel. What to do with that child? And the next day, rinse and repeat. They do the same thing again, but with fresh hope that today will be the day they finally break through.

Why doesn’t it work when I’ve told him so many times?

But… it still doesn’t work.

Pretend for a minute that you’re, say, a 3-year-old. This will help you understand what’s going on “in their world” when they shut you out.

So you’re 3. You have short arms, short legs, tiny socks on your feet. And your mommy says to you:

“Wash your hands! How many times have I told you we wash our hands after we go potty?”

Now say that out loud about 20 times. Even better if you close your eyes while doing it. So shut them tight and imagine. Ooh, look what color your socks are! And now repeat that same sentence 20 times.

“Wash your hands! How many times have I told you we wash our hands after we go potty?”

I’ll just wait here until you finish.

What happens when we explain things over and over

You here? You’re back in your grown-up body now. Did you really go through with the exercise? If you did, you probably experienced one of two common reactions. Before reading what they are, ask yourself: What effect did the repetition have on you?

Was it one of these two things?

1. Chanting the same thing over and over seemed to strip it of all meaning. Eventually it turned into a random string of syllables you just kept repeating automatically. The words hold no more meaning for you. And that was with just 20 repetitions. How many times do your children hear certain sentences repeated?

2. You got more and more irritated with each repetition. If you heard it 50 more times or so, wouldn’t you feel like getting back at me for giving you that instruction in the first place? Wouldn’t you dig in your heels? So can we really be surprised when our children don’t want to wash their hands...? Of course not!

Our kids go through the same thing. 

You don’t harp on about washing hands, you say? Doesn’t matter. Replace it with any other thing your kids have heard a hundred times before.

The second common strategy parents tend to try without success:

They talk too often and they talk too much

I used to do the same thing. Right up to the day my 6-year-old daughter said, “Mom, did you know I haven’t been listening to you this whole time? This lecture really isn’t that interesting.” I have no idea where she learned the word lecture.

When they tune out

You’ve probably experienced this before, maybe as a kid with your mom or dad, or later with your significant other, friend, the chatty neighbor... They just keep on talking, and you find yourself keeping quiet. Ever had that happen? They’re going a mile a minute, and you just tune it out.

Our kids do that, too. 

It doesn’t even matter if their parents are saying all the “right” things, trying to come to an agreement. Too many words, even the right words, are just too much. So they check out.

“Over the last few days I’ve noticed that as I try to make agreements with my son (2 years old), I talk and talk in order to explain things to him, so he’ll understand what I mean, and so on. But uh-oh, then he started tuning me out sometimes,” says Monika (from the Unparenting course) on getting started.

More words don’t improve your chances of reaching an agreement with your child. Quite the opposite.

Last week I met a mom with a little boy of about 3 in the waiting room at the doctor’s. He was singing to himself, swaying back and forth on his seat, and kicking his legs. Clearly making the best of a somewhat boring wait.

“Don’t do that, you’ll kick somebody,” said his mom. No reaction. “I’ve told you again and again not to kick your feet. Do you not hear me?” she persisted in a calm voice. No reaction, the boy turned to look out the window and kept on swinging his feet.

When mom is at her wits’ end

Now the boy’s mom raised her voice a bit: “You almost kicked that man! Are you even listening to what I’m saying?!” Now the little boy was goofing off, giggling, making faces, and still swinging those feet. And now I could almost see the steam coming out of the mom’s ears.

“You have got to be kidding me. Do you hear me or not? I’m sitting here explaining things to you, and you don’t even care. Fine. Next time I’ll just leave you at home.”

And the little boy? Still off in his own world, singing to himself. And swinging those feet. Results: zero. Just one frustrated, worn-out mama.

All of a sudden he caught my eye. He stopped staring off into space, stopped swinging his feet, and started signaling something with his eyes.

And kids play deaf

His mom’s words kept on going in one ear and out the other from the next seat. They clearly had absolutely no effect on him. (Though who knows what all he may have felt before “playing deaf.”) It’s like if you live close to an airport. You hear the planes day in, day out, and eventually you get so used to the sound you don’t even notice it any more.

One situation where you didn’t work well together

Can you think of a specific situation recently in which your child didn’t do what you said because they were off in their own little world? Take as much time as you need to come up with one. It’s important.

It doesn’t have to be an extreme situation where you couldn’t help yelling, like the mom in the waiting room. Maybe a time when you were trying to come to an agreement with your child, calmly and patiently explaining everything and asking what she wants, and then explaining some more...

If you have your situation in mind, replay it now.

Picture what was going on, what you did, what you said, and what your child did.

Have you got it? Great. Now let’s play the same situation again, but this time from the child’s perspective. Put yourself in your child’s shoes for a minute, in that situation. Watch and listen to what your mom (or your dad) is doing and saying. Listen to the same things you said to your child in that situation. Pay attention to how they make you feel.

And then ask yourself: Do you have any opportunity to get involved? Do you feel like your mom or dad are interested in what you want? Do you feel like cooperating? Do you feel inclined to do what they want?

The first thing to get kids listening

If you do, then maybe that wasn’t the right situation. Because otherwise you would have just gone and done it, right? As would your child. We need a different situation.

If not, what would you need to hear from your mom or dad to make you feel like cooperating? What would it be?

Please write down your answer. Because that’s the first thing to get kids listening, even the littlest kids. That’s the first step out of the vicious cycle

What I would need to hear from my mom/dad: __________________________________________

Our kids feel the same way. 

If you know what you would need to hear, then you have a much better idea of what your children would need to hear, too. It’s highly likely the same thing would help them.

So next time a similar situation arises, you can try that instead of what you’ve been doing and saying so far. That’s your first important building block.

The second thing to get kids listening

Were you surprised by that comparison with the airport? How you get so used to the planes flying overhead you don’t even notice them any more? Now imagine they shut the airport down one day. You’ve been hearing airplanes fly overhead every day for years, so you’re completely accustomed to the sound. And all of a sudden… no planes. Total quiet. It’s so quiet that you can hear yourself better now.

And that’s the other type of communication that gets kids listening:

In a situation where your child usually doesn’t listen to you, before you say anything – try keeping quiet for a little bit. It usually just takes a minute or two for you to get some perspective on the situation. To remember that this is the point where you would usually say that same thing you’ve said a hundred times – and your child never listens.

Don’t treat the symptoms. Stop the airplanes.

When children live in their own world and don’t listen to what we are saying, it’s usually due to our method of communication. So try not saying anything. Stop the airplanes. And then put the two steps together: Think about what you would have needed to hear in that situation yourself (see above). That’s probably what you should say right now.

That’ll get the ball rolling.

If you put these two steps into practice:

  1. Imagine what you would have needed to hear from your mom/dad,
  2. Keep quiet for a little bit before you say anything,

They’ll help you get things moving toward an incredible change with your children. And that’s just the beginning of a whole new approach that works for your children. See what happens next in stories from other parents here

I look forward to hearing your story. It starts with this one first step.

Hana Havrilcova
and Unparenting

If you combine these two things with other effective ways of communicating so that children listen, in a few weeks you could be seeing the same results at home as Jitka.

“...I’m living proof that IT WORKS. After I changed my approach I realized my son isn’t actually terrible, naughty and uncontrollable, and that I’m not any of those things either :) I’ve been taking the course for three weeks and the changes are remarkable. ;) After these three weeks my son and I have such a great relationship that I get tears in my eyes when I think how much time I wasted being needlessly angry and strict.”

- Jitka, from the Unparenting course

Find out more about the course

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About the author

Hana Havrilcova, instructor and co-creator of Unparenting courses, mom to two daughters

She studied education and became a teacher, later adding a degree in adult education. She taught students from preschool to high school and beyond, teaching continuing education classes for fellow teachers. She had her first child in her 30s. When her firstborn was 2 1/2, she had to deal with unexpected health problems. Months of recovery with a toddler under 3 by her side changed her views on parenting from the ground up.

She works with parents in Unparenting, writing for them and helping them handle difficult situations with their children. Hana works with Katie Kralova making Unparenting programs.

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