How to Get Kids to Listen the First Time

Parents can struggle with excruciatingly slow responses from their children, and while noncompliance is frustrating, there are good reasons for why it happens.

Children often do not have the skills to give their attention to more than one thing at a time. For example, if a middle schooler is reading, studying, or heavily engaged in a video game, he may be unable to decipher the sounds of mom calling for him from the kitchen. The ability for people to accurately process what is happening around them is called peripheral awareness, and for many young children and teens, it’s not a well-developed skill.

Additionally, it’s very possible that children and teens are pushing boundaries to see exactly how far they can go. According to Dr. Monique LeBlanc, a local psychologist, children often test limits. Exploring boundaries is a very normal part of healthy development. In some cases, the lack of response may be intentional. If a child has learned that he doesn’t really have to do whatever it is being asked of him, he likely won’t. For example, if a child has past experiences in which he is prompted to do something and mom or dad end up doing the chore for him, there is little motivation to respond to the request. Despite this, there are still things parents can do.

Tell Them What You Expect.
Setting clear expectations is critical. By telling children what you expect, you set the tone for future behavior. For example, you expect your child to respond to your prompts when asked the first time. Or, for older children, you may set an expectation that they have up to 10 minutes maximum before complying with your request. This should not be a discussion or a question, it is a direct statement.

According to Dr. Shelly Martin, a local pediatrician at Baton Rouge Clinic, being supportive but staying firm on rules and expectations is important for prompt obedience. “Studies have shown that a parenting style that is child-centered, in which parents closely interact with their children, while still maintaining high expectations for behavior and performance (as well as a firm adherence to schedules and discipline), provides the best support for the pre-teen and teen years.”

When establishing expectations, make sure your child actually hears you. Dr. LeBlanc encourages parents to keep in mind proximity. “I suggest that parents avoid giving instructions from across the room. Parents should be physically proximal to the child; even touching the child on the shoulder or something similar.” She continues, “For teens, physical proximity is still important, but they can give the instruction from a greater distance. No matter the age, eye contact is important.”

Proximity is important because if kids don’t hear you, they won’t know what’s expected of them. Dr. LeBlanc also encourages parents to have children repeat back to you what it is you are asking them to do. Retelling the expectation is a good way to check for understanding.

Let Them Practice.
Once you have set an expectation, it is important to give children the opportunity to practice it. “Children need to be taught how to follow instructions, just as any other skill,” says Dr. LeBlanc. This is important to remember anytime, but especially when implementing a new practice. As with any new developmental change, children may need time to understand what is expected of them and how to comply appropriately.

Reinforce What You Want to See. 
Do you remember what it was like teaching your child to use a spoon? Every time he loaded up that spoon and got (most) of the food into his mouth, more than likely, you cheered, clapped, and encouraged him, reinforcing the behavior. The same applies with compliance. When your child responds appropriately when asked the first time, let her know that she’s doing a good job. Dr. LeBlanc reminds parents, “Reward compliance often at first, and then fade it over time to an intermittent schedule.”

It is also important to remember to not punish good behavior. As difficult as it may be sometimes, refrain from responding to compliance with a sarcastic remark or backhanded compliment. A snarky remark like, “You finally did it right! It’s about time!” may satisfy some parental frustrations, but in the long run, it will hinder the likelihood that the desirable behavior continues.

Let Consequences Happen.
Experts agree that allowing natural consequences to happen can be highly effective, however, you never want to allow anything that may be harmful or unsafe. But, rushing in to save the day won’t help either. If you have asked multiple times for your kids to bring their toys inside and they end up getting rained on and ruined, that’s probably a good (although hard) lesson to learn. It’s also okay to enforce your own punishment for noncompliance.

Generally, setting clear expectations and giving time to practice, coupled with reinforcement and punishment when necessary, will improve the likelihood of compliance. Dr. LeBlanc reminds parents that consistency is key and establishing routines for daily activities will help. Well established routines based on clear expectations for compliance will reduce the rate of possible noncompliance, making these interactions more positive for both parents and children. ■

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01 Jan 2019

By Melanie Forstall Lemoine, Ph.D.

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