How I got my child to listen (without yelling)

I’m the mother of two daughters. My youngest, Annie, has anxiety and attention challenges, 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 before

In school, Annie was sweet, compliant, and helpful. But at home, she 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 kids to remember and follow.

We also had to stop negotiating, pleading, and threatening.

Dr. Reddy gave us an explicit set of instructions to follow: 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 told 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. And if she didn’t follow the direction, then we should 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 stay calmer.

Pretty soon, this technique became second nature, and it always worked. In fact, it 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!)

Wondering why your child doesn’t listen? Find out why some kids have trouble following directions.


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