By: Elizabeth M. Nelson, M.S., and Thomas Reimers, Ph.D.Boys Town Center for Behavioral Health
Poor listening, or “noncompliance,” is one of the most common concerns expressed by parents of toddlers and school-aged children. Children love having fun; they want to keep doing it. Once a parent makes a request that ends or prevents fun, children may respond with behaviors ranging from whining to complaining to hurricane-force tantrums. Parents often say that they need to repeat requests, raise their voice, or threaten to get their child to do what they have asked. Behold, a few simple changes in the way you teach your child to listen can make a big difference.
Sending SignalsYou are the message-sender; the traffic light for your child. Real traffic lights go predictably from green to yellow to red. Imagine if traffic lights changed at random. You wouldn’t know whether you needed to go or not! As a parent, the more predictable your signals are, the more predictable your child’s behavior will be. When you make a request, your light is green and children are given the signal to “GO” and complete a task. If they listen, then make their efforts pay off! Provide them with praise, attention, smiles, etc. This will get them GO-ing, and they will eventually learn that the sooner they follow your request, the sooner they are back to playing and having fun.
If your child doesn’t listen (or comply), then your light goes to yellow, warning of an upcoming consequence: “If you don’t do this, then – this will happen.” By predictably showing your children that not listening the first time brings a warning and not simply a repeated instruction or nagging, the more compliant and predictable your child’s behavior will eventually become. If you have given one request followed by one warning and your child still doesn’t listen, then your light goes to red, meaning you give a negative consequence like timeout or a privilege loss. Once the consequence is given, go back to green and repeat the instruction (it still needs to get done!).
Too Much Green or Flashing Yellow…Some parents make numerous requests followed by numerous warnings, with consequences occurring unpredictably, late, or never. Once a child knows that a parent’s light stays green or yellow for a long period of time and may never turn red, there is little reason to “GO” on green. When signals aren’t predictable, it encourages children to ignore their parents, become defiant, or escalate misbehaviors with the hope of changing their parents’ minds.
Red!Sometimes a parent can carry predictability and authority too far. Jumping right from a request that was not followed to a harsh punishment may result in better listening – at least temporarily. However, when this happens, a child is often responding out of fear and may resent the parents because the punishment feels so unfair. Giving a warning allows children the chance to think about their choices, knowing that a specific consequence will happen with whatever choice they make.
Teaching Your Child To ListenTeaching your child to listen is a process that relies heavily on communication and consistency. Boys Town Behavioral Health Care offers parents the following tips to help you successfully teach your child the importance of listening, the first time:
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