Want to increase your kiddo's compliance and decrease stress at home? I use these strategies myself and offer them to clients. Do we still have chaotic, messy mornings and struggles at bedtime in my house? Of course! But these strategies help me send the kids off to school with smiles all-around, more often than not. And we end the day feeling love and connection... 9 out of 10 days :-)
Connect before you start speaking. It’s best to hold off on giving directions (e.g., “put on your shoes”; “brush your teeth”; “pick up your toys”) until you know you have your child’s attention. It is normal for children to get absorbed in their own imaginary worlds and to tune out your instructions; they may not purposefully be disrespecting you – they just don’t share the same priorities. Get down on your child’s level. Sit on the floor or kneel. Observe what your child is doing and connect with him on that task: “Wow, look at that train track you built! Is that the caboose?” When you connect with him and respect what he’s absorbed in, he’s more likely to then meet your request. Follow that up with, “Hey, I have something to tell you. Can you look in my eyes?” Wait until you make eye contact. Don’t start giving directions until he is looking at you and you have his full attention. Then start talking.
Don’t repeat yourself. If you’re asking your child to do something more than once, stop. You didn’t get your child’s full attention. Go back to the tip above and try again. If you get in the habit of asking your child to do X 17 times before you really get serious, you are training the child to think that the first 16 requests don’t need to be taken seriously.
Give simple instructions. Use as few words as possible. Be specific. Break big tasks into smaller steps based on age and ability. For example, instead of, “Molly, please clean up and get ready for bed now!” (this is vague and perhaps too much to tackle at once) try, “Molly, please put your books on the shelf. Then change into your pajamas.”
Put yourself in his shoes. Imagine what your child must be feeling. He’s almost constructed an elaborate Lego structure and is putting on the final touches. You’re telling him to stop immediately to get to bed. You are unlikely to get a kid who will willingly and easily comply with this request. How might you feel if you were in the middle of a work project on your laptop and someone came up from behind you to slam it shut and demand you stop? Depending on the circumstances that night, maybe you can respect where your child is coming from: “Ok, Sam, I’ll give you 5 more minutes to finish this project. We’ll set the timer and when it goes off, I need you to go in the bathroom and brush your teeth.” Other nights you may need immediate compliance, but at least you can empathize: “Sam, I see you’ve been working so hard on this Lego structure. I know it’s difficult to stop playing but now I need you to…”
Use a warm tone and aim for teamwork. No one likes having orders barked at them. It stimulates resistance. Consider how you feel when someone orders you around. Instead try, “Okay Ruby, it’s bathtime! Can you help me find the rubber duckies? Wouldn’t it be fun if we covered them with bubbles?” If possible, you can also offer choices. “It’s time to get clean now. Would you like a shower or a bath?”
If you threaten a consequence, follow through the first time. “If you throw the ball in the house, I will take the iPad for the rest of the day.” Then do it immediately if the behavior occurs. Many parents threaten the consequence but then feel awful when it’s time to follow through, so they hesitate or offer more chances. What are you teaching the child? When mom/dad tells me to stop, I don’t have to listen the first time. While it can be uncomfortable to see your child upset when you enforce the consequence, remind yourself that children need boundaries to feel safe. Too much freedom or power for a child is usually not a good thing and will lead to acting out; they need to know that you are in charge and in control.
Role model attentive listening. When your child is asking you a question or telling you about their day, are you staring at a screen? As much as possible, show your child what it means to be attentive and listen respectfully. Stop what you’re doing and take two minutes to listen – it doesn’t have to take long. Model the way you want family members to listen and communicate.
Stay calm. Get playful. When we get loud, upset and scary, kids go into fight or flight mode. In this state, they become less effective at listening and lose sight of what you asked them to do in the first place. Take a breath and keep your cool. Another strategy: when you feel yourself getting frustrated, flip into play mode. “Oh, are you running away instead of going in your room? Well I’m going to get you and tickle your toes!” This diffuses the tension and before you know it, you’re both in the room giggling and getting ready for bed.
Praise, praise, and praise some more when you get the behavior you’re looking for. Did Jack clear the table after finishing breakfast? Did you catch him sharing a snack with his sister? Did Lucy put on her shoes the first time you asked? Reinforce this behavior with lots and lots of praise! It’s my opinion that you cannot overdo the praise in these situations. “Wow, I am so proud of you for listening the first time I asked!” “Look what a loving brother you are. This makes me so happy!” Most kids will beam with pride when they get your approval; they will want to feel this way again and they will repeat the behaviors.
Be careful not to unintentionally reinforce the behaviors you DON’T want. If you draw attention to your child’s negative behavior, make a big deal about it, or yell and make a scene, you are bound to reinforce it. Even when a behavior drives you up the wall, keep a neutral stance if possible. This doesn’t apply to behaviors that involve safety concerns, like running into the street or hitting a sibling. But if the behavior is relatively mundane, just annoying, like your child won’t eat the eggs you make for breakfast, the best response is no response.
Note: If your child is used to doing something negative to get your attention and you start to ignore it, the behavior may get worse initially. This is called an “extinction burst.” Essentially you’re telling your child, “Surprise, you’re not getting what you want if you act like that” and they’re going to ramp up the behavior to test the waters. Eventually they will give up.
Know when to ask for help. Perhaps you have already tried the above strategies for three months or more and they don’t work with your child. Maybe you are concerned that there is another reason your child isn’t listening (such as an auditory processing problem or chronic hyperactivity or inattentiveness). Don’t hesitate to talk to your pediatrician or a qualified mental health professional.