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5 EASY STEPS TO GET YOUR KIDS TO LISTEN

Every parent struggles with getting their kids to listen. Read on to become a a child ninja master!

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  • Writer's pictureJade Kestian

Get Kids to Listen... Without Yelling

Updated: Feb 23, 2023

How to use Commands Effectively

Many parents find themselves at a loss when trying to get their children to listen. It is common for parents to wonder whether they are being too lenient and too strict. They may find themselves fluctuating between raising their voice and giving in to their child’s pleading or giving up on trying to set a limit. Often, parents' strategies depend more on the parent's mood than the task itself. Parents well meaning discipline often feeds a dynamic where children are much less likely to listen and more likely to push parents’ buttons. Learning how to give effective commands can help change this dynamic to one that encourages listening and more peaceful communication.

This handout will provide an overview of how to give effective commands. The key questions to answer include:

1) When should I provide commands?

2) How do I state commands effectively?

3) How should I respond after giving a command?

When should I provide commands?

Commands work best when reserved for situations where compliance is important. Important is subjective, of course. Some things that are probably important to most people are issues of physical safety. For young children, you may have to provide commands such as “Hold my hand as we cross the street” or “use gentle hands with your friends.” Overall, what you consider important will be based on your values. You may want to do an activity to get more in touch with your own family values. You can search the internet for “values card sort” and many free options will come up.

Only use direct commands when you are willing to set a consequence if your child does not obey. If it is not that important for your child to comply, then using questions or suggestions is fine! You will have to ask your own wise mind whether a question, suggestion, or command is best in any given situation. You can watch Youtube videos about Wise Mind and the States of Mind to learn more about what these concepts mean (or check out the DBT Skills manual in the references).

How do I state commands effectively?

The way you state commands can make a big difference in how your child responds. The following are some dos and don'ts for giving commands:

Dos

  • Get the child’s attention

  • State the command

  • Use a calm tone

  • State commands positively

  • Make commands specific

  • Break down tasks into parts

  • Incorporate choices

  • Give an explanation before (if needed)


Don’ts

  • Shout from the other room

  • Ask a question or state the command as a suggestion

  • Give more than one command at once

  • Yell

  • Engage in debate


Get their attention: Make sure your child can hear you and understand you before issuing a command. We don't want “not hearing you” to be a true barrier for compliance. Remove distractions as needed (e.g. turn off the TV). Get your child to look at you before giving the command.


State the command clearly, not as a question or suggestion: When it is important that your child do something, make it clear by using a command. Avoid questions such as “Do you want to clean up your room?” or “How about putting on your shoes?” These types of questions or suggestions leave room for your child to say “No, thanks." Fair enough. I mean, what child is going to want to stop playing video games to go clean their room? And tying shoes? What a bother! Instead, say something like, “It is time to put your toys in your toy box.” Again, if compliance isn't important, using a suggestion is fine. In this case, don’t punish your child if they don’t follow through with suggestions.


Use a calm tone: Give commands in a neutral, polite voice, rather than yelling or begging. Using calm and direct communication serves to strengthen relationships and reduce stress in families. Modeling healthy communication is important so that your children can learn to do the same. When commands are used effectively, yelling will become less "necessary" for compliance.


State commands positively: It is easier to understand and comply with positively stated commands. Instead of saying “Don’t,” or “Stop,” be specific about what you want the child to do. Instead of “Don’t run near the glass case,” say, “Please walk around the glass case.”

Use single, specific commands: Tell your child exactly what to do, one thing at a time. Replace commands such as “Be nice” or “Settle down” with more specific commands. For example, say “Use gentle hands with your sister,” “Use your indoor voice” or “Please sit down at the table.” Give commands one at a time rather than putting several together.

Break large commands into smaller parts. Wait for the child to complete the first part before giving the next command. For example, instead of telling the child to “Clean your room,” say “Put your blocks in the box." Then wait for your child to put the blocks away. Praise your child for listening, then provide the next command (e.g. “Please put your shoes in the closet.")

Provide choices: Providing choices between two or three appropriate options is a great way to foster independence. “Choice” commands should be simple and tailored to your child’s developmental level. For example, you could say, "It's time to put on your shoes. You can put on your red shoes or your blue shoes."

Give an explanation: Sometimes it is useful to give your child an explanation about why you are giving the command. Make sure to give the explanation either before the command or after your child has obeyed. This will prevent your child from engaging in a procrastinating debate with you. If your child asks why they should do the task, it may be useful to say, "I'll be happy to explain after you do what I asked." For the curious child, this also creates a small incentive for compliance.

How should I respond after giving a command?

Follow-through is the most important part of giving commands. Be sure to reinforce compliance and avoid reinforcing non-compliance.

If the child complies, be sure to provide some praise such as, “I love how you put your toys away as soon as I asked.” Be genuine and enthusiastic with your praise. Avoid backhanded compliments like, "I'm so glad you finally listened for once!" Focus on the present.

If your child does not comply, provide one warning with a natural consequence attached. Do not provide more than one warning. Do not repeat the command again! The reinforcing power of procrastination is powerful! The more you repeat the command without compliance and without the immediate consequence, the more you are training your child to ignore you. The warning should include information about the consequence if the child does not comply (e.g., brief time out, short-term loss of privilege). For example, "I've told you that we only bounce the ball on the floor, if you throw the ball at the wall again, I will take the ball away for the day."


If the child does not comply after the warning, follow through with the consequence (e.g. take the ball away). This may cause a tantrum in the moment (known as an extinction burst). Take a deep breath, find your center, and be sure not to give in during this time. Ride out the tantrum and after a few trials of this, the tantrum behavior will start to go down. If you do give in during an extinction burst, the behavior will become harder to change down the line.


If the child complies after the warning, praise them! Yes, I know, they didn't do it immediately... but even though you had to provide a warning, the kid still did what you told them to, so be sure to reinforce that- that is how we shape behavior. Keep up with the praise when they do comply, and maybe next time, they won't need the warning!

References:

Linehan, M. (2014). DBT Skills training manual. Guilford Publications.

McNeil, C. B., & Hembree-Kigin, T. L. (2010). Parent-Child Interaction Therapy Second Edition.


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