"Why won't my child listen unless I yell?!" Here is why, and how to break the cycle

Written by Elizabeth Adams and Nancy Schwartz 

“Why does no one listen unless I yell?!” Here is why, and even better, some simple steps to stop this pattern from repeating itself over and over in your household.  

Did you know that there is research that shows a reasonable estimate of the number of commands a young child receives is one per minute?  Commands given to our children occur during all types of activities, with some studies documenting and average of 10 commands or more in 17 minutes during mealtimes (e.g., "take three more bits, eat your food, stop throwing potatoes at your sister.")  Take a minute to do the math and you can see that over the course of a day, a child might receive upwards of four to six hundred commands.  Four to six hundred.  Wow.  No wonder our kids aren’t listening to what we say. 

The thing is, we (very accidentally) teach kids not to listen until we yell.  You just read the astonishing number of commands parents give.  Kids need some way to figure out how to filter for the important things!  Often, yelling becomes an easy way to distinguish between a real command and a choice.

The other reason yelling is "effective" is because we don’t follow up commands to ensure kids follow through.  How could you? There is no way that we as parents can appropriately and consistently follow-up on 400 commands in a given day.  It just wouldn’t be possible for ANY parent! Instead, we might find ourselves repeating a command over and over, getting increasingly frustrated, or not following-through at all and just letting the matter drop (because we really don’t have the energy/don’t care that much that they listen in the first place).  This inconsistency is confusing for kids, and they are left to wonder which commands are a choice, and which they are really supposed to listen to. 

And so, all too often, yelling ends up becoming the follow-through. (which doesn’t feel good for anyone).

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Now, we have ALL found ourselves in a moment realizing that we spent that last 30-minutes shouting out a list of orders to our kids:  “Put that down!  Don’t climb that.  Be careful.  Watch out.  Share your toys..” and on and on…and on.  Yes, we have all been there, done that.  But it is frustrating for you, and it is really frustrating for our kids.  So let’s break down why this is happening, and what you can do to change the pattern.

Here is the chain of events involved:

1). Imagine you were on the receiving end of all this high-frequency commanding.  You would find it really unpleasant, and frankly, rather annoying.  It would be the kind of thing you would vent about to anyone who would listen—“My boss tells me what to do every 1.3 seconds.  I’m not kidding.  I started timing it and it’s true!” Kids are no different. When they are inundated with rapid fire commands, or commands coming at them all day long, it is frustrating, unpleasant, and annoying for them.  Which then leads to the fact that…

2). When kids receive too many commands, the chance of them listening goes down significantly.  And when kids feel too overwhelmed and frustrated, they tend to shut down, throw a tantrum, or just ignore the commands entirely.  Which then leads to…

3).  Parents feeling overwhelmed and frustrated themselves, and that’s when our own tantrums kick in, or at the least, the yelling begins!

So, how do we break this cycle of frustration?  Easy. Decrease the number of commands you give your child.  Ok, great, you say.  But how do we do that and make it through a day, clothed, fed, bathed, safe, and on time?  That can be easy (or easier), too.  You just have to:  pick your battles, help your child follow-through with the commands you do give,  and use alternate strategies instead of giving a command in the first place. 

Picking Battles:

Step One:  Choose your commands carefully:  The first step in picking battles is really being mindful about your commands, and when you are choosing to give them.  Reducing the number of commands helps kids comply because they aren’t stressed and frustrated with a barrage of requests and instructions coming at them.  All. Day. Long.

Giving commands is inevitable - we are going to have to tell our kids to brush their teeth, put away the toy, etc.  So, Save it for when it counts.  Try to listen to yourself and pay attention to your interactions.  Imagine how it feels for your child.  If you notice that you are predominately correcting and commanding, it might be time to make a shift.  Ask yourself if you truly care about the command you are about to give.  If the answer is yes, by all means, command away.  But if you can let it go, or approach it another way (keep reading to find out how) try that instead.  You will both feel better for it.

Step two –Follow up so they follow-through:  Ever have the experience of finding yourself making the same request of your child over and over (and over and over and over)?  Sometimes the string of asking nicely a million times inevitably ends with a frustrated parent finally yelling the command (see totally relatable video below). 

This loop of repetition and escalation is all too familiar, right? When I was younger (but honestly, old enough to remember), I figured out that when my mom said “put on your jacket” what that really meant was that I had ten more minutes to do whatever I was doing, and at least four more “put on your jackets” until it was really time to go and Mom meant business (sorry, Mom).  The thing is, part of getting kids to listen to our directions is to follow up on commands so that kids follow through.

As our children are learning the lessons of when and how to listen and follow instructions, we will teach them best if we give the instruction once.  Then, if they don’t listen, we follow up by doing something different to ensure that they follow through. 

For example, after first giving a two-minute warning such as “in two minutes, we have to leave the house!”,  you might ask your child once to put on their jacket (i.e., “Lili, it’s time to get into the car to go to school, please put on your jacket.”).  *Give yourself bonus points for providing both a reason and a clear instruction!*  If Lili doesn’t hop on up to put her jacket on (when does that ever happen with a 2/3-year-old?), repeating the command over and over isn’t going to help anything, and will likely end up in a frustrating power struggle. 

Instead – do something different to follow up.  Change the tactic.  Walk over to the child, with the jacket in hand.  Make sure they are looking at you and you have their attention.  Get on eye level and repeat the command, along with the offer of a hand to walk them to the jacket.  Handling it this way will prevent you from saying the same thing repeatedly (with no change in response), help you avoid a confrontation, and teach your child the sequence of listening after you give a directive.

Step three (a pick your battle life-hack) Use alternate strategies:  One question that often comes up is how to lower the frequency of commands when kids require so many directives to get through the day.  One alternative to giving a command is something called “I statements with environmental control” (so fancy).  To explain, let me paint the scene:  you are at your aunt’s house and your four-year-old enthusiastically begins running around, waving a breakable heirloom over his head.  You need your sweet one to put it down.  You could choose the approach of giving the directive “Please put that down gently!” (I know what you are thinking:  that is NOT how that would sound).  You also have another choice:  you can get up, go over to the child, and as calmly as possible take the object out their hand.  While you place it down on a high shelf you can say, “I am going to put this over here so it doesn’t break” (I statement with environmental control). 

This approach is helpful because it solves the issue at hand while side-stepping a potential conflict.  After all, what happens if the child says no/ignores you/runs away?  It also avoids the likelihood of you repeating the command over and over again (aka adding to the day’s command payload) while probably breaking the heirloom in the meantime!  Try this strategy in a variety of scenarios and notice how it can really help to reduce commands and help you avoid power struggles.

These tips are intended to help us navigate day-to-day commands with a little more peace, and a little less conflict—something nearly all parents long for.  But remember, perfection on the part of parents is unrealistic, not to mention unattainable, unnecessary and not expected!  We will all fall into the cycle of repetition from time to time – and we live and learn.   

 Remember that what each child needs is different.  Dr. Adams provides individual (Skype or phone based) parent coaching to address a range of concerns (e.g., sleep struggles, tantrums, limit testing, co-parenting issues).  Email Dr. Adams for more information, or to schedule an appointment at dradams@personalizedparenting.org, or learn more here:  www.personalizedparenting.org.