1. Parenting
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

Kids Don’t Listen? Change How You Give Directions

Learn how to effectively give instructions and commands to kids


USA, New Jersey, Jersey City, Father and son (8-9) arguing
Jamie Grill/Getty Images

When kids don’t listen it can’t make any parent want to pull their hair out. It’s normal for kids to be non-compliant and argumentative sometimes. However, it can lead to bad habits and disrespectful behaviors if it is not addressed. Increase the likelihood that kids will follow directions and be more compliant the first time you tell them something by following these tips.

Get Rid of Distractions

Yelling an instruction from across the house while your child is playing video games or texting is not likely to lead to a positive response. Get rid of any distractions before attempting to make a request or give directions. Pause the television, interrupt the video game, or turn off the radio to gain a child’s attention. When possible, establish eye contact just to make sure you have their full attention. For some kids, such as kids with ADHD, a hand on the shoulder can reinforce the child’s attention.

Tell Don’t Ask

A simple change in the way you word something can greatly improve your chances of getting a kid to comply. One of the best strategies is to tell a kid to do something, don’t ask. Only phrase it as a question if they really have a choice.

For example, if you want a child to pick up his toys, don’t say, “Can you please pick up the toys?” Even a mildly oppositional child is going to say “No!” Instead, say, “Please pick up the toys.”

Give kids a five minute warning whenever it’s possible to do so. Instead of saying, “Go clean your room now,” when your child is in the middle of playing, tell your child, “In five minutes it will be time to stop playing and clean you room.” Then in five minutes say, “It is time to stop playing and clean your room now.” This is a respectful way to give your child time to prepare to switch activities.

Start with One Instruction at a Time

Young children, or children with attention problems, will not respond well to chain commands. For example, if you say, “Put your backpack away, pick up your socks, and put your dirty jeans in the washing machine,” a child will likely miss a step or two along the way. Start with one instruction at a time. Wait until your child completes the first task before giving new instructions.

Some older kids and teenagers can handle a couple of directions at a time and they have the ability to work from a list. In these cases, you can always tell them “It is time to do your chore list,” and they can accept responsibility for completing each task on the list.

Ask Kids to Repeat Back What They’ve Heard

After you give an instruction to your child, ask him to repeat back what he heard. This can ensure that he understands what is expected of him. This provides an opportunity to provide clarification if there’s any misunderstanding.

Reinforce Positive Behaviors

It’s important that you provide positive consequences to kids if they followed the instructions. Praise can be a great way to reinforce their good behaviors. Saying something such as, “Great job cleaning your room right when I asked you to,” can encourage your child to do so again the next time you ask.

Rewards are another way to reinforce good behaviors. If your child has done a great job listening, sometimes a surprise reward can offer an extra incentive. More formal reward systems or token economy systems can also motivate kids to listen better.

Provide Negative Consequence for Non-Compliance

When kids are not compliant with following through with your directions it is important to provide a negative consequence. Avoid a power struggle and instead, provide a consequence that will discourage your child from not listening next time. For example, take away a privilege or give your child a time out.

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.