The Key Signs Your Child Has Selective Hearing and What to Do About It

Updated: December 2, 2020
Does your child have selective hearing? These are the warning signs to look out for. Plus, we're featuring a few ways you can set your child up for success if he struggles with selective hearing.
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Concerned about hearing loss? It could be selective hearing. Selective hearing is the natural process by which we filter out background noise, picking up the auditory information that is important to us. Selective hearing is a helpful phenomenon, but it can become problematic if the brain filters out what it should be paying attention to.

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My family used to joke that I couldn't hear directions in the same room but I could hear the sound of a chocolate bar unwrapping all the way across the house with the TV blaring. Clearly, the issue wasn't hearing loss, but rather a disconnect when it came to dividing my attention between different speakers (or in my case, between a speaker and a candy wrapper!)

What Is Selective Hearing?

Selective hearing allows your brain to identify and pay attention to important auditory information while filtering out background noise.

Selective hearing helps us succeed and survive on a daily basis. If you have ever been at a noisy party but you were able to carry on a conversation ("the cocktail party effect"), or if you can pick out your child's unique cry on the playground when she falls down, you have already experienced it.

In fact, some gifted people are able to use auditory selective attention to narrow their focus and pick out very specific sounds within extremely noisy environments.

Of course, we want our kids to grow up to be able to focus on their teacher's lesson amid a noisy lecture hall or to hear warnings of danger so they can stay safe and even help others. These are the positive benefits of the auditory system's amazing abilities, but what about when it becomes a problem?

Does My Child Have Selective Hearing?

Selective hearing becomes a problem when it functions in reverse. If a person filters out important information while paying attention to non-essential sounds in noisy environments, they will struggle to succeed. This can happen to children, who often have their own ideas about what matters most. Some kids are addicted to video games and sweets, while others are simply fascinated with a particular genre or sport. These aren't necessarily bad interests, but it becomes an impairment if these preoccupations get in the way of your child's ability to follow basic directions or show good manners. In short, if it's affecting the quality of life, it's a problem.

If your child doesn't seem to hear anything at all, it could be early hearing loss or tinnitus (ringing ears), and a hearing test may be in order. It could also be a sensory processing issue or attention deficit disorder, especially if your child struggles with multitasking. In this case, hearing aids won't be the solution. Symptoms of hearing loss, tinnitus, attention deficit disorder, and selective hearing can overlap so it is important to consult an audiologist to rule out these possibilities.

Rule Out Hearing Loss or Other Issues

If you suspect selective hearing, it is always possible that your child has true hearing loss. That's why it's important to start with audiology procedures like an ear exam and a hearing test.

Your child may have wax build up that prevents her from hearing your voice or discerning your words. This can be fixed fairly easily with an ear cleaning and the use of drops regularly, going forward. Excessive use of earbuds or headphones can also prevent wax from exiting the body naturally and lead to build up.

Early hearing loss or hearing issues may also be the root cause. A simple hearing test will identify any possible hearing loss. Schools often conduct hearing tests every few years as a screening tool, but you can ask your pediatrician or audiologist for another test if you suspect a hearing problem.

Some people experience tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, which prevents them from hearing properly. Tinnitus may happen intermittently, meaning that sometimes the ringing occurs, while other times, it doesn't. A two-year-old might not be able to communicate an issue like this, but if an older child describes a ringing or beeping sound, take it seriously.

People with selective hearing filter out the "wrong" information. Selective hearing stands out because your child can hear certain things while appearing to ignore others. If your child seems unable to hear or focus on anything, it could be attention deficit disorder or sensory processing disorder. These issues are not specific to the auditory cortex and they affect multiple senses.

How to Help a Child With Selective Hearing

There are a few ways you can set your child up for success if he struggles with selective hearing. You can even work to retrain his brain to start sending the important information down the auditory cortex!

Here are some helpful tips:

Get Your Child's Attention Before Speaking

Get on your child's level. Being able to see your face helps your child know to pay attention. Also employ physical touch. Lay a hand on your child before and during your statements or directions. Try to use a multi-sensory approach. The more of your child's senses you alert, the more likely she is to tune in auditorily.

Keep It Simple

When it comes to giving directions, the fewer words you use, the better. Long explanations or lectures cue kids to tune out. They have short attention spans and they need very specific instructions.

Cut Down on Distractions

Some children with selective hearing are preoccupied with something specific that prevents them from focusing on important information. You may need to cut down on screen time, sweets, or anything that may be causing a problem.

Listen to Your Child

Too often, we adults filter out our children's voices! Life gets busy and honestly, kids talk a lot. But the truth is, our children are always watching and learning from us. Make an effort to model good listening skills and really engage with your children in a respectful way. Stop what you are doing when they speak to you and give them eye contact while nodding. Respond with a meaningful answer or comment, rather than "mmmhmmm".

There are times we cannot stop everything and listen. In those moments try using a phrase like, "I'm busy now, but I will listen to you after I finish sweeping the leaves".