All the questions and answers come directly from Smart Love Solutions in Early Childhood-A Handbook for Parents, Teachers and Caregivers by Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper.
Q: Mom who feels ignored
How do I get my 3 ½ –year-old son to listen to me? How do I manage to control my temper when he ignores me? I usually have the toughest time with this during transitions. For example, when we are getting ready to leave the house I will ask him about 400 times to put his shoes on. By that time when I have gotten my one-year-old daughter ready to go and in the car, my patience is pretty much exhausted with my son. He ignores me until I raise my voice, or I say, “Mommy is getting very angry with you for not putting on your shoes.” Then he will sort of meander over to his shoes and tell me he cannot put them on, etc.
Another example is after preschool. In the car on the way home I always ask him what he did at school and who he played with. He frequently ignores me. I used to say things like, “Mommy doesn’t like it when you don’t answer my questions,” or “It’s rude not to answer questions,” which, of course, did nothing. Now I just ask questions and shut up when he does not answer. I feel frustrated and angry when he ignores me. Do you have any suggestions?
A: The reasons for your feelings of being ignored in the two examples you give are quite different, and so we will discuss them separately.
In the first example, the problem is less that you are being ignored than that you are expecting too much of your three-year-old. The result is that you are frustrated when he does not respond as you wish. Three-year-olds normally have great difficulty with transitions and need lots of tactful help to make them peacefully. This is especially true when there is a one-year-old sister getting all the attention and assistance that the three-year-old still needs and wants.
We suggest that instead of simply telling your son to put his shoes on, you get his shoes, put him in your lap, and help him on with his shoes while you sing a song or talk about the fun he will have at the outing. If he says he wants to put his shoes on himself, do praise him but don’t expect that he will want to do this himself the next time. If you take his true emotional age into account and help him now with shoes, jacket, etc. in order to make possible a calm and comfortable transition, you will not feel frustrated and ignored, your son will experience the warmth of being understood and cared for and your relationship will immediately become closer and more enjoyable. When he does begin to do more for himself it will be out of pleasure and a feeling of competence and not from feelings of shame or worry about your displeasure.
A lot of the frustration you describe in your second example is the result of not realizing that three-year-old children hold conversations very differently from adults. Children that age often are speechless when asked general questions, such as, “What did you do today?” Moreover, if something went wrong at school they often dislike discussing the discomfort they feel. So, if you ask your son who he played with and things did not go well with his friends, he may not feel like answering.
If you consider his silence as the result of immaturity rather than rudeness, you will have taken a big step toward being able to have a conversation with him that is appropriate for his age. Try asking questions that you think will allow him to relive activities he enjoyed. For example, if he likes animals, ask him how the hamsters were feeling today. If you know he enjoys art, ask if he worked with clay or painted a picture.
Most important, do not get angry with your son, if he does not answer a question. When children that age do not know what to say or do not want to talk about something, they frequently remain silent. Your son is not deliberately upsetting you; he is just acting his age. When you get irritated with him for not answering you make it more difficult for him to be outgoing and responsive. If you bring up topics that your son finds enjoyable in a relaxed and non-pressured manner, you will be amazed at how much of his day he will want to share with you.