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.
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.
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?
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.
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.