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Getting Your Child to Listen, The First Time

Getting Your Child to Listen The First Time image

​​​​By Elizabeth M. Nelson, M.S., and Thomas Reimers, Ph.D.

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 Signals
You 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.

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 Listen
Teaching 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:

  1. Stay calm – Be calm and firm at the same time. Use a neutral tone of voice instead of yelling.
  2. Be direct – A direct command leaves no question in the child’s mind what he/she is being told to do. The choices are clear. For example, “Sit in the chair, please” and “Pick up your toys” instead of “Could you please sit down now?” and “Mommy likes it when you pick up your toys.”
  3. State commands positively – Tell your child what to “GO” do instead of what not to do. Whenever possible, avoid the use of “no,” “don’t,” “stop,” “quit it,” etc. For example, “Keep your feet on the ground” instead of “Stop climbing on the furniture.”
  4. Give one command at a time – Children have a hard time remembering more than one thing at a time. Avoid stringing commands together. For example, “Put your toys in the bin” instead of “Put your toys away, wash your hands, and come to dinner.”
  5. Give age-appropriate commands – Commands should be things that the child is developmentally/physically capable of doing. Remember that many tasks actually have multiple steps. Children may need you to help them break down the command into a small chunk. For example, “Put the clothes on the floor in the hamper” instead of “Clean your room.”
  6. Give brief rationales – For example, “We are going to the store, so put on your coat.” A longer rationale is not needed and only creates confusion.
  7. Be physically present – Instead of yelling across the room or house, get directly in front of your child, make good eye contact, and give the command with gestures (i.e., show them what you want).
  8. Ask the child to repeat the command – This will ensure that there is no question as to whether your child heard the command.
  9. Reward compliance – Immediately acknowledge that your child has completed a command by using praise, attention, and affection.
  10. Make sure you mean it – Never give a command that you do not intend to see followed through to its completion. Use timeout or guided compliance (gently guide them through the task) as necessary.