My Child Won't Listen to Me!

Have you ever found yourself saying or thinking this?  If so, you are not alone!  Many parents (and teachers) sometimes experience difficulty having children follow their instructions.  Parents often express frustration that their children do not take them seriously and that their attempts at punishment have been futile.

Here are a few quick pointers to improve your child's direction-following:


1.    Use simple, concrete, and direct instructions.

When providing your child with a direction, make it easy for her to follow it!  Ensure that the instruction and the expectations are clear.  If your instruction has multiple steps, try to provide them in the order they need to be completed. The first step in helping your child to follow your instructions is to make sure she understands them!


2.    Only ask a question if it is actually a question.

Consider these two examples: “are you ready for dinner?” versus “it’s time for dinner.”  The first example is a question and the second is a statement.  If you ask your child a question, you are giving her the option to say “no”.  Of course this is totally fine if you are actually giving her a choice.  But, on the flip side, avoid asking a question unless she actually has a choice!  After all, there are some things that are just not optional!  In these cases, use a statement instead.


3.    Say what you mean and mean what you say.

This is one of the most important things you can do to improve your child’s direction-following!  Be sure that you are ready, willing, and able to follow through with whatever you say.  If you tell your child that it is time for bath, stick to it!  If you do not follow through, your child will likely learn that your instructions are not meaningful and that you will not be consistent.


4.    Choose not to partake in an argument.

Our little ones are often excellent mini-attorneys!  Following an instruction, your child may initiate a debate with you.  Remember that your kitchen is not a courtroom and that you do not have to take part in the argument!  Participating in the debate may allow your child to delay following your instruction and send the message that you will not stand by the things you say.  Instead, we suggest responding one time to your child’s questioning and then disengage from the argument.  Engaging in the argument will likely increase your child’s arguing behavior in similar contexts moving forward.


5.    Reinforce the behavior you want to see!

Remember to notice when your child does the right thing!  So often we only take notice when a child is engaging in behavior we do not want to see.  Try to flip this around!  Be careful to notice and praise your child for engaging in the behavior you do want to see!  You want to teach your child that when she does follow your instructions, good things happen.


Note:  Sometimes things get worse before they get better.  In behavioral terms, we call this an “extinction burst”.  If your child is engaging in challenging behavior when you present instructions and you stop reinforcing it by following some of these pointers, you may see an initial increase in frequency, duration, or intensity of your child’s behavior.  If the extinction procedure is implemented appropriately, this increase will be temporary and the behavior will ultimately decline.  Be prepared for the possibility of an extinction burst and ensure the safety of your child and others.  If your child’s behavior is unsafe or you need additional support, we suggest that you contact a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) immediately.  Feel free to contact our behavior team and/or attend one of our Tackling Tantrums workshops for additional help!


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