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Ask Once and Your Kid Does It: 5 Ways to Make it Happen

By Megan Devine, LCPC

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.

Related: Stop Power Struggles with Children and Teens

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.

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.Related: Does Your Child Ignore Consequences? A New ApproachNote—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.

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About Megan Devine, LCPC

Megan Devine is a licensed clinical therapist, former 1-on-1 Coaching Advisor, 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.

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