Why Do My Kids Ignore Me? Why It's Probably About Them, And Not You

Who else gets driven insane by their child ignoring them? 
I’d rather have outright defiance or an argument with my child than just be ignored.
Feeling invisible is a huge trigger point, not just for me, but many of the parents I work with, and in my FB group that this is a commonly shared experience.

There are all kinds of reasons why children either ignore us.
Sometimes it’s quite intentional and requires a more personalised approach (more info here).

Other times our kids appear to acknowledge us and then blank us, when accurately, they’ve not even heard or understood us.

In the interests staying sane, keeping our composure or not always taking it personally, I’m sharing five truths about developing brains that can help us understand why ‘being ignored’ is usually all about what’s going on for them at that moment in time, and not about you: 

1) They don’t have the life experience or brain maturity.
You may not think you’re asking your kids to be empathic, but when we’re expecting them to value what’s important to us, even though it may not matter to them, empathy is exactly what we’re expecting.
Even if they know what’s important to us an intellectual level, it’s not the same as understanding it at an emotional level.

Your child may simply be too young or inexperienced to understand the world through your eyes.
Or they may not be functioning in a thinking, emotionally regulated brain state (which, BTW, they won’t be able to do if you, as the adult, is also dysregulated).
As satisfying as it may feel in the moment, losing our s*** is pointless. Conflict drives disconnection, when the root of empathy is connection.

So what do we do?
It doesn’t assure success, but we have a much better chance of it when we explain to our children what we need and why, while we are well regulated.
Always try to do this before you need what you need, because that’s when conflict so often scuppers our plans.

Other times, we just have to accept that children don’t ‘get it’ yet: younger children especially because their brains simply aren’t mature to process the world through empathic eyes.
Cultivate patience 💖

2) Their brains aren’t actually processing the information
Children can look like they’re paying attention, but if their focus is being compromised, e.g. by TV or a screen, a conversation they’re having, or another distraction, their brains often just short-circuit to nodding or saying ‘yes‘ when they’ve not heard a word.
It’s a bit like expecting the kettle to work because you’ve switched it on, and haven’t noticed it’s not plugged in at the wall.

Make sure you have your child’s attention, ideally through eye-contact, and ask them to repeat what you’ve said.
Firstly, because that’s what helps their brains move into ‘receptive’ mode.
Secondly, so you know they know.
Thirdly, so they know that you know that they know.

3) There’s only so much bandwidth in any brain
While your child may have been going to school for 5 or even 10 years, and therefore should know what time they need to get their shoes on, it’s not always that straightforward.

Our adult brains are usually mentally rehearsing the ‘to-do’ checklist continually, so knowing what needs to be done, and when, is second nature.
But all kinds of factors, most of which we’ve experience ourselves, if we’re honest -hormones, hydration, quality of sleep, stressors, countless other streams of thought – get in the way or recalling and prioritising tasks.

Be gentle on your kids’ brains: especially first thing in the morning, and especially, especially if you’re raising adolescents.
They’ve still got a lot of developing and maturing to do, and throwing multiple tasks at them at a time will only ever make things worse.
Focus on one task at a time and give them way more time than you think they need. Frustrating, yes.
But nowhere near as much as the situation descending into warfare.

4. We’re not letting their brains do the work
The truth is that it’s often just easier and quicker to do things for our kids, or at best, be constantly giving instructions and reminders to make sure they get things done.
But how do their brains learn to do the work themselves if we’re either doing it for them or managing them?

Yes, it can make for very slow progress sometimes. And it’s not realistic to practice this all the time.
But rather than always directing your kids ‘do this’, ‘do that’, ask them the questions to initiate their brains to do some thinking and processing.

Is there a reason the crisp packet is on the floor?

What do you need to do with your football kit to ensure it’s ready for practice next week?

5. Give them a dopamine hit
Dopamine is the brain-biochemical associated with the brain’s ‘reward centre’.
IMO, external rewards are often not particularly useful; they focus the brain’s attention to life beyond the task and a ‘what it’s in for me?’ mentality.
Real success is kids having the mental reasoning skill of understanding why the task matters; there are other ways to offer positive reinforcement than managing your kids behaviours through bribes and regards alone:

  • “How much easier did we get that done today?”
  • “We did that 10 minutes quicker than yesterday. What do you want to do with the time we’ve saved?”
  • “How different does it feel than when we do this without arguing about it?”
  • “Thank you for X; I really appreciate it because Y.”

When we give ‘strengths-based’ feedback like this, without conditioning our children to comply, it gives them a little dopamine hit, in other words, an ‘intrinsic reward’.
And that in turn supports their brains to associate the action with reward (the ‘feeling good’ kind), so it will more ready to repeat that in the future.

And when you engage them in a two-way conversation about it, rather than just telling them, you encourage their brains to make new synaptic connections accordingly (see point 4!)

Children ignoring you is never going to be easy. But always hold in mind that it’s usually about a brain that’s simply not ready, either developmentally or right in the moment.
Even though it can feel hugely personal, it’s rarely about you.

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