Why won’t my child listen?

Charlotte JenkinsBeacon Family Services, Beacon NeuroConnect, News

Do you have days where you feel like your child just isn’t listening, no matter how hard you try to connect with them?  We’ve all had them as parents and it’s easy to start questioning if you’re doing something wrong or if there might be more to the situation.  So you might get their hearing checked and if nothing is wrong what next?  It’s natural to feel frustrated and worried, especially when communication feels like an uphill battle.

Parenting is never easy, and when you’re navigating the unique challenges of raising a neurodivergent or adopted child, communication can bring very specific challenges.

How speech develops


Communication is the cornerstone of connection, but it’s a journey that begins long before words are spoken.  In the first few months of life, babies show their interest in communicating by listening intently to the sound of the human voice, looking at people’s faces when they talk, and then engaging in back-and-forth babbling games with their caregivers. Talking, singing, and reading to a child are crucial for language development.

Children need to develop several sets of complementary skills to become skilled communicators during their early years:

  1. Oral motor skills are not just for eating and drinking, but also for speech production.
  2. Receptive language refers to how your child understands language. This is about listening and following directions (e.g. “Put your shoes on”) relies on receptive language skills.
  3. Expressive language refers to how they use words to express themselves. This is vital for children to be able to put their feelings into words “I’m hungry”.

Understanding the intricacies of language processing can feel like deciphering a complex puzzle, especially when your child faces additional challenges. It’s normal to worry about their ability to express themselves or comprehend the world around them.

Challenges to speech development due to trauma

Trauma can cast a long shadow, affecting every aspect of a child’s development, including their ability to communicate. Decreased social interactions due to trauma early on can lead to language delays. Prenatal exposure to drugs, poor nutrition, and low birth weight are additional risk factors.  On top of this many children remain overly alert to signs of danger around them so don’t find it easy to stay still and pay attention.

Challenges due to speech development neurodivergence

Parenting a neurodivergent child comes with its own set of unique challenges.  Autistic children and those with ADHD have a range of communication skills and abilities. Some have excellent communication skills, while others struggle to relate and communicate with others.

Neurodivergence means that some people experience (sensory) and communicate with the world differently, which society may not always accommodate well. This can mean your child will become anxious in environments where their communication and sensory preferences are not well understood.

Why feeling safe matters

Perceiving cues of safety allows us to socialise, while cues of danger trigger fight, flight, or shutdown responses. You can read more about this in our blog about Dr Stephen Porges PolyVagal Theory.   Hypervigilance to danger cues can affect speech development by reducing attention to language and social engagement cues.

In children, difficulties in listening and reading facial expressions can stem from an innate response to needing to focus on whether we feel safe or not. This can lead to reduced awareness of the human voice, or over responsiveness to deep voices (sorry Dads) making it challenging for children to attend to what is being said to them.  Additionally, they may display a flatter affect, make less eye contact, and have difficulty interpreting emotions, leading to challenges in empathy and social engagement.

This is why when children are melting down northing we say makes a difference.  Understanding the science behind your child’s responses can offer valuable insights into their behaviour. When you recognise the signs of stress or danger, you can provide the support and reassurance they need to feel safe and secure. Your presence, more than your words,  is a beacon of comfort in a world that may feel overwhelming at times.

Top tips

Keep Sentences Simple: When communicating with your child, use short and simple sentences. This aids their language processing and comprehension, making it easier for them to understand and respond.

Allow Pauses: Give your child time to process information by allowing pauses before repeating yourself or giving additional instructions. This helps prevent overwhelm and supports their ability to engage in effective communication.

Pay Attention to Prosody: Be mindful of your intonation, stress patterns, loudness variations, pausing, and rhythm when speaking to your child. By using a sing song voice you can convey meaning and emotion, enhancing their understanding of your message.

Show, Don’t Just Tell: Instead of solely giving verbal instructions, use demonstrations to show or guide your child in what you mean. This non-verbal approach can be more effective, especially for children who learn best through hands-on experiences. Combined with warm facial expressions and head gestures this signals safety.

How can Theraplay™ Help

Our Theraplay sessions are designed to be fun and interactive, providing valuable opportunities for connection and growth. From silly faces to rhythmic clapping, each activity is tailored to your child’s unique communication and needs and preferences.

If you want to play games that focus on receptive language one of our favourites is Simon Says.  Check out our socials for tips on different Theraplay ways to play this classic game.

Charlotte Jenkins is the founder and a director of Beacon Family Services. She is an experienced social worker supporting children and families therapeutically using Theraplay and Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy.  She is also trained in Sensory Attachment Intervention which focuses on helping children and parents coregulate their nervous systems to build their relationships.