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On the Empowering Parents Facebook page we asked parents to share the one day-to-day thing they find most frustrating about their kids.  The overwhelming answer? “I have to tell my kid five times to do the simplest thing! Every single day, it’s a battle. I want to tell him once and have him march off and do it! It would make everyone’s lives so much easier.”

It’s annoying, isn’t it? Why can’t they just follow that one simple direction? It’s not like you’re asking them to do something complicated.  What you ask is really quite simple:  Fold your laundry. Walk the dog. Take the trash out. Clean your room. Why do you have to say the same thing fourteen times, with your voice and your blood pressure rising each time?

Think about it: If you’re in the habit of saying something 4 or 5 times before your child does as you’ve asked, why should he do it the first time?

What’s Really Going On?

Before we get into effective solutions for this problem, let’s look at what’s really going on here. Is your child just being obstinate and willful?  Maybe.  But the bigger reasons for her non-compliance might surprise you.

One big thing that may be happening when your child refuses to act until you’ve lost your temper is a bid for power. Power struggles are par for the course as your child becomes more and more independent. The longer she can hold you off, the more powerful she feels. The angrier you get, the more she feels she can control your emotions. This aspect of getting kids to follow directions is actually the easiest to remedy: the most effective way to end a power struggle is by refusing to engage in it. Clear, direct expectations and consequences can keep you out of these battles.

But in the case of having to ask over and over, underlying power struggles might be less of an issue than…training. Yes, your child might simply be trained to not respond to your first several requests. Think about it.  If you’re in the habit of saying something 4 or 5 times before your child does as you’ve asked – on a good day – why should he do it the first time? He knows you don’t really “mean it” until several requests down the road. Those first few times are just the warm up.

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Another surprise? While you may feel incredibly frustrated that your kid won’t stop what he’s doing, it’s actually normal behavior. The truth is, we all do it. Look at it like this: if you’re doing something you really like, how many times do you tell yourself, “I should really go start dinner.” And then you keep not going to start dinner. That’s human nature.  We want to keep doing the things we want to do, and we put off the things we don’t want to do. There’s nothing wrong with your child if he’s doing this.  Your child is simply interested in his own stuff, not yours. Like most people, he wants to keep doing what he enjoys, and isn’t interested in things he doesn’t enjoy.

Related: “How can I stop ‘over-functioning’ for my child?” It’s easier than you think.

Change the Dynamic

So how can you deal with this? I mean, you do actually need your child to do what she’s asked, the first time. Human nature and habit aside, it would cause so much less stress for everyone if she’d just do it the first time.  It’s going to take some time and patience on your part, but you can retrain your child to respond to the first request. It’s not going to be easy, because you’ll have to resist the urge to repeat your request as you usually do. You’re going to have to over-ride your frustration in order to remain calm and clear. Ready?

  1. Have a short, direct conversation with your child about the problem. “I notice that I often tell you 5 or 6 times to do something before you eventually do it. That’s not going to work anymore. From now on, I will tell you once, and if you don’t do as asked by the time I tell you, there will be a consequence.”
  2. Be sure you know what the consequence will be! Making one up in the heat of the moment is ineffective. Surprising your child with a consequence after the fact often makes things worse. Be clear about what she can expect to gain for completing the task assigned and what she will lose if she doesn’t comply.
  3. Give a time frame to allow for transition.  Look, you don’t like to jump at someone’s suggestions and your child doesn’t either. Instead of saying, “Do this right now!” a more effective statement might be: “The trash needs to be taken out before 4 o’clock. That means you have 20 minutes to get it done.” Remind your child of the consequences for not following through: “Remember, when the trash is out by four, you get to play video games for an hour. If it’s not, you don’t.”This is a really important piece of the puzzle. You’re connecting your consequences to the behavior you want to improve, and you are clearly letting your child know what she earns when she’s completed the task. In this case, you want to see your child get better at responding to requests the first time, and you want the trash out by a certain time.   Note—this also works if you’re trying to get her to stop doing something. If you have to tell your daughter 46 times to turn off the TV, just change your directive to something like: “You have 15 more minutes of TV time; then it’s going off.”
  4. In the beginning, give a reminder – once. It may seem counter-intuitive to give your child a reminder when you’re trying to get him to respond to your first request. Remember that you’re asking him to learn a new behavior. A little bit of coaching can increase your chances of success. Coaching is different than repeating a direction.  For example, if your child hasn’t moved to do as asked and he’s running out of time, pop your head in and say, “You have about five minutes to get that trash out. I know you want your video games, so be sure it gets done.”
  5. Be prepared for failure. This may be the hardest part of this whole process. You’ve repeated your instructions so many times in the past; your child expects that to continue. He’s going to test that theory more than once before things shift. It’s only through repeated, consistent practice that both of you will understand that things have changed.When your child fails to meet the time deadline (and he will), be calm, clear, and direct: “You didn’t get the trash out by four, so you’ve lost access to your games tonight. You’ll get another chance tomorrow. When you do as asked in the time you’re given, you’ll get to play your games.”

Remember that you want your child to succeed. This is not about punishment – as James Lehman writes in the The Total Transformation Program, you can’t punish a child into better behavior. This is about helping your child learn to better manage his time and to get better at following directions. With practice, he’ll see that getting those irritating chores out of the way means much less stress and annoyance and far more free time.

Be patient with yourself and your child. Changing behaviors takes time and work on everyone’s part. Stay focused and clear. You can do this, and so can your child.

Related Content:
Challenging Parenting Issues: 5 of the Hardest Things Parents Face
What to Do When Your Child Says, “I Don’t Fit In”

About

Megan Devine is a licensed clinical therapist, former Empowering Parents Parent Coach, speaker and writer. She is also the bonus-parent to a successfully launched young man. You can find more of her work at refugeingrief.com, where she advocates for new ways to live with grief.

Comments (8)
  • Acacia
    So my 7 year old does well with consequences and rewards. However, getting him to listen to his teachers at school is very difficult because on his teacher and father are very inconsistent with rewards and consequences. Does this mean all hope is gone for him complying at myMore house and school. His teacher complains she has to repeat herself several times for him to do something. She is very frustrated and so am I. He's not so bad at my house but when he returns from dads it's like starting from ground zero. Do you have any advice this has been going on for 2 years.
    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent Coach
      Thank you for your question. While it would be ideal if all the adult authority figures in a child’s life supported each other and were consistent in how they responded to a child’s behavior, this is not often the case. In the end, you can only control yourMore own actions, and how you choose to respond to your son’s behavior. If you notice that your son does well with consequences and rewards, you might consider setting up a behavior chart with him, where he can work toward earning incentives by complying with requests the first time. I also encourage you to continue to work with his teachers to address this behavior, as outlined in When Your Child Has Problems at School: 6 Tips for Parents. Please be sure to write back and let us know how things are going for you and your son. Take care.
  • nivedita vedaang
    For making your child listen to you we should also listen to them .As a child learns everythi ng from parents so we should also listen to them and make them feel good when they listen to us.We should applaud them when they listen to us at once.As praising yourMore child can be beneficial but not over praising.
  • totally frustrated
    Great article.  What do you do with the child who refuses to do the consequences.  "I am doing it anyway!" is my ten year old's response when I say he has lost television time because he didn't do what he was asked to do, and then it becomes a battleMore with the remote or I have to turn the power off to get him to comply?
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      @totally frustrated

      You bring up a great point. Some kids probably are going to

      push back against consequences and limits a parent puts in place. For that

      reason, It’s usually more effective to use consequences that are fail proof –

      meaning ones that you can and will implement. Kim Abraham and Marney

      Studaker-Cordner explain fail proof consequences in greater detail in the

      article  https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/parenting-odd-children-and-teens-how-to-make-consequences-work/. Unfortunately, this

      may mean a parent has to put remotes away or use parental controls on things

      like TVs, computers, or other electronics in order to ensure the child isn’t

      able to access the privilege. We appreciate you writing in. Take care.

  • Danette
    My son is 21 and still living at home working part-time and unsure what to do as a career. We have often offered to sit down with him to help try and determine what he might want to consider as well as remind him as to free resources to helpMore him choose a career. He's not motivated to get up and look for a job. I've taken away unlimited internet privileges, as well as game systems ie xbox. He no longer has a house key as he's not paying rent. It's causing much stress with my husband and I, our relationship with our 21 year old as well as our relationship with our other teenager. Any help would be appreciated.
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      @Danette

      It’s not unusual for a person to falter when making the

      transition into adulthood. It can be tough to know what type of work or career

      you may want to have and the prospects can be frightening. Something to keep in

      mind through this situation is that the parental role changes when your child

      becomes an adult, as Debbie Pincus points out in the article Adult Children Living at Home? How to Manage without Going Crazy, with a parent

      becoming more of a consultant than a manager. Ultimately, it falls to your son

      to make the decisions around job and career. As the parent, you can continue to

      offer him guidance if he is open to it. Continuing to push the issue probably isn’t

      going to be effective. Instead, try to focus on  the expectations you have for him while he is

      living in your home. For example, you could set up a mutual living agreement as

      described in the articles Parenting Your Adult Child: How to Set up a Mutual Living Agreement & Ground Rules for Living with an Adult Child (plus Free Living Agreement). This

      will help to clarify rules and expectations around working, helping out around

      the house, and other tasks and activities. I hope this information is useful.

      Be sure to check back if you have any further question. Best of luck moving

      forward.

  • MummaCatInTheHat
    Great advice. Have already discussed this with my 14 year old who has said losing her phone as a consequence isn't fair, so I've reiterated that if what I ask her to do she can keep her phone. Shall see how long it takes for her to click its betterMore than being asked several times.
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