How to instruct children in a way that they will listen

Many parents complain that their children follow instructions only after they are repeated several times. Let’s look at what we as parents could be doing wrong

frustrated mother with child who doesn't obey

One of the most common errors made by parents is in how they give instructions to their children. Typically, parents will instruct children and get no response. Then, apparently being ignored, they will repeat themselves in a variety of ways in order to get compliance. When the child continues to ignore them, the parent becomes angry and raises his or her voice, which in turn negatively reinforces the behaviour. The child learns to only respond when the parent is angry and loud. This locks both parties into a negative escalation trap.

Parents who get into the habit of using requests or giving instructions to children worded in a question format such as, ‘Can you say good night now?’ or ‘Can you pack up your toys now?’ are often frustrated and confused as to why their children don’t listen. This is essentially because such phrases are non-committal and the child interprets it as a choice, which can be accepted or rejected as he wishes. This means that the instruction is on the child’s terms and when they don’t do as required, we in turn get angry.

When we give clear instructions, children are more likely to comply. For example:

  • James, tonight I will read you two stories and then we will say goodnight.’
  • ‘It’s time to pack up your toys now.’

Children learn to respond better when there is an expectation that they will act in accordance with what has been stated. Let’s look at the correct way to instruct children.

How to stop the escalation trap

To eliminate the escalation trap, delete all requests statements from your vocabulary when speaking to your children. For example, ‘Would you like to sit at the table now?’ is better expressed as ‘It’s time to come to the table now.’ ‘Would you like to take a bath now?’ is better expressed as ‘It’s time to take a bath now.’ Alternatively you can offer a choice statement and thereby avoid direct confrontation, such as, ‘Will we get the blocks or all of the books first?’ In doing so, parents give the children control and power in an appropriate way which does not reduce their in-charge position.

Elevating your child’s position to Your level may make them like you for a moment, but it does both of you no favours in the long run

Parents need to help their child learn to respond immediately instead of only when there is screaming and yelling involved. Parents need to be in control and remain regulated. You have the right to expect certain instructions be followed and that your child does the tasks that need to be done in an appropriate and considerate manner. To do all this with conviction you need to maintain your role as the adult and your child’s role as the child. It should not be the other way around. You need to listen to what your child says and make decisions that are fair and reasonable, not decisions based on making the child happy. However, remember that children are more likely to accept a decision they do not like if they feel that you have listened and treated them fairly.

Elevating your child’s position to one that is at level with yours may make them like you for a moment, but it does both of you no favours in the long run.

Rewarding cooperative behaviour with something enjoyable is effective, for example, ‘When you are finished putting your toys away, then we’ll…’ Incorporating an incentive is usually beneficial in having children do what is asked of them, for example, ‘Put the toys away quickly, so we can go to the park.’

Building fun into the instruction also helps with cooperation, such as, ‘Put all the animals into the box and let’s count how many animals we can pick up from the floor.’ By building fun into the activity children are more likely to comply with the instruction and see it as a pleasurable connecting experience.

If they ignore you or begin to demonstrate other challenging behaviour, you must act immediately. Giving warnings before the change of activity is one way to potentially avoid challenging behaviour. Using simple time methods works well such as: counting, songs, a short piece of music, using an egg timer or marking the time on a wall clock for preschoolers.

Simple steps for effective instruction giving

Step one

Use your proximity. Move closer and get to your child’s level. An arm’s length away is usually a good distance. It is also useful to use their name and make a connection with them.

Step two

Make sure that the instruction is to the point, clear and brief so that it is understood. For some children it helps to ask them to repeat the instruction and to acknowledge that they have understood: ‘Yes, that’s right.’

Step three

If there is a list of instructions, break them down and give them one at a time.

Step four

Make sure your instruction is the last thing that the child hears. If you need to explain anything, do this at the beginning; for example, ‘It’s time to go now. Stop playing and put your toys on the shelf now, thank you.’

Step five

Always use positive language when giving instructions; for example, ‘Walk inside the house’ rather than ‘Don’t run inside’.

Step six

Give your child time to cooperate [five seconds] and respond before you repeat the instruction.

Step seven

Avoid giving an instruction, leaving the room and then returning a period of time later to check.

Step eight

After giving an instruction stay focussed on the task. Avoid distracting them from what you have asked them to do.

Step nine

Use labelled acknowledgement when your child follows an instruction. Describe exactly what they did well; for example, ‘I felt so pleased to see you listening and getting quickly into your car seat, thank you.’

Step ten

When instructions are not followed issue a choice statement and follow this by a logical consequence; for example, ‘You need to put your shoes on before you can go to the park.’

This is an extract from Parenting Made Easy- The Early Years by Dr Anna Cohen from Kids & Co. Parenting Made Easy: The Early Years is available for purchase from for RRP $29.95.

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Anna Cohen
Anna Cohen, Senior Clinical Psychologist, has been working with children, young people and families for over 20 years in both government and non-government organisations. She currently works full time as the Clinical Director at Kids & Co. Clinical Psychology in Sydney’s Inner West and Eastern Suburbs. She specializes in the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of children and young people with psychiatric, emotional and behavioral difficulties.


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