Getting My Child to Listen (Without Yelling)

By Pam Kruger on Sep 20, 2017

My Story

I’m the mother of two daughters. My youngest, Annie, has anxiety and attention issues, which makes it harder for her to follow directions. When she was about 7 years old, she sometimes would refuse to do what I asked.

What I Was Doing

In school, Annie was sweet, compliant and helpful. But at home, my then-7-year-old became stubborn and defiant when asked to do simple chores. A request to put away her toys and brush her teeth would be ignored or met with arguments or tears, or all three.

My husband and I tried everything we could think of.

Logic: “Annie, if you don’t put away the Legos, you could lose pieces, and then you wouldn’t have that fun game to play with.”

Negotiation: “OK, Annie, we agree to 10 more minutes of TV and then you’ll clean up.”

Threats: “You have 5 seconds to clean up or else. Five… four… three…”

The typical result: An epic one-hour battle of tears, yelling and time-outs.

What I Wish I’d Known Sooner: Keep Commands Simple

My husband and I explained the vicious circle we were in to a psychologist, Linda Reddy, PhD. After listening to us, Dr. Reddy explained that we needed to keep our commands simple, with one- or two-step directions. Instructions with more than two steps—like “Go upstairs, put away your toys, brush your teeth, and pick up your clothes from the floor”—can be too complicated for a child to remember and follow.

We also had to stop negotiating, pleading and threatening.

Dr. Reddy gave us an explicit set of instructions to follow, which entailed the following: Look your child in the eye, calmly say her name, pause, provide the two-step instruction, and end with “now.” “Annie, go upstairs and brush your teeth now.”

Dr. Reddy instructed us to pause 15 to 18 seconds and stay within 3 to 5 feet of Annie. If she followed the direction, we were told to briefly praise her for following the direction. If she did not follow the direction, we were told to calmly repeat the instruction.

That night, I tried it: “Annie, go upstairs and brush your teeth now.” I silently counted to 18, willing myself to ignore whatever she said or did in between. Then I repeated my instruction. I did this again and again, pausing 15 to 18 seconds between each instruction, worrying that her shouts and pleas might turn to fury. But on the eighth try, something amazing happened. “ALL RIGHT!” she said, irritated, and she went upstairs and brushed her teeth. Pausing 15 to 18 seconds between instructions helped me become less angry and more calm.

Pretty soon, this technique became second nature, and it always worked. In fact, the tactic worked so well that I was tempted to try it on my spouse. “David,” I said to my husband one evening, “can you please take out the garbage, now?” (He grinned at me, knowingly. Then he grabbed a trash bag!)

If your child has trouble following directions, try these 10 tips. Learn more about why some kids have trouble following directions. And explore more alternatives to raising your voice with your child.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Pam Kruger is a New Jersey-based writer and editor and mother of two.