Getting Kids to Listen the First Time You Speak

Get kids to listen by giving effective instructions.

Jamie Grill / Getty Images

Whether your child tunes you out when you tell them to pick up their toys or keeps banging on the table when you tell them to stop, getting your child to listen can feel like an uphill battle sometimes. You're often competing against TV, video games, and lots of other distractions to capture your child's attention.

Of course, electronics aren't the only reason kids don't follow directions. They also tend to have selective hearing. But the good news is, a few simple changes to the way you give directions can be the key to getting your child to listen the first time you speak.

Get Rid of Distractions

Yelling instructions from across the house while your child plays video games or scrolls through social media isn't likely to be effective.

Get rid of any distractions before attempting to make a request or give directions. Start by saying, "Put down your phone, please," or "Pause your game for a minute so I can talk to you."

Once you have your child's full attention, give your instructions. If your child struggles to pause their show or put down their electronics, you may need to work on that behavior. Tell them you will take away electronics privileges if they can't disengage when you tell them it's time to take a break.

When possible, establish eye contact to make sure you have your child's full attention. For some children, such as kids with ADHD, a hand on the shoulder can be an added way to ensure you have your child's full attention.

Tell, Don’t Ask

One of the most common mistakes parents make when giving directions is to ask, not tell. When you ask your child to do something, you imply they have the option to say no.

If you ask, “Can you please pick up the toys?” even a mildly oppositional child will say “No!” Instead, say, “Please pick up the toys now.”

Give your child a five-minute warning whenever possible. Instead of saying, “Go clean your room right now,” when your child is in the middle of playing, say, “In five minutes it will be time to stop playing and clean your room.”

Then, when those five minutes have passed, say, “It is time to stop playing and clean your room now.” This is a respectful way to give your child time to prepare to switch activities.

Give One Instruction at a Time

Young children—and children with attention problems—don't respond well to multiple directions at once. Saying, “Put your backpack away, pick up your socks, and put your dirty jeans in the washing machine,” can cause your child to miss a step or two along the way.

Start with one instruction at a time. Wait until your child completes the first task before giving new instructions.

Some older kids and teenagers can handle a couple of directions at once and they should have the ability to work their way through a list. Then, you can say, “It is time to do your chore list,” and your child can accept responsibility for completing each task on the list.

Ask Your Child to Repeat Your Directions Out Loud

After you give an instruction, ask your child to repeat back what they heard. This can ensure that they understand your expectations, and it gives you an opportunity to clarify if there's any confusion.

You might find your child needs an explanation about what to do. Or, you might discover that they sometimes say, "OK," but have no idea what you said. If they don't understand, repeat your instructions until they do.

Reinforce Positive Behavior

When your child follows your directions, provide positive consequences to reinforce good behavior. Praise compliance by saying something like, “Great job cleaning your room right when I asked you to."

If your child has done a great job listening, give them a surprise reward every once in a while. Or, establish a formal reward system or token economy system to motivate them to keep up the good work.

Provide Negative Consequences for Non-Compliance

If your child doesn't follow your instructions, provide a single if...then warning. Say, "If you don't clean your room now, you'll lose electronics for the rest of the night."

If your child doesn't comply, follow through with a negative consequence. Take away a privilege, such as electronics, for up to 24 hours.

After you've given your child consequences for not following directions, they should learn that you mean business the first time you speak. Over time, they should become more compliant with your instructions.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.