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Getting Your Child to Listen, The First Time

Poor listening is one of the most common concerns expressed by parents of toddlers and school-aged children. Parents often say that they need to repeat requests, raise their voice, or threaten to get their child to do what they have asked. Behold, a few simple changes in the way you teach your child to listen can make a big difference.


You are the traffic light for your child. Real traffic lights go predictably from green to yellow to red. When you make a request, your light is green and children are given the signal to "GO" and complete a task. If they listen, then make their efforts pay off! Provide them with praise and attention. This will get them GO-ing, and they will eventually learn the sooner they follow your request, the sooner they are back to having fun.

If your child doesn't listen, then your light goes to yellow, warning of an upcoming consequence: "If you don't do this, then - this will happen." If you have given one request followed by one warning and your child still doesn't listen, then your light goes to red, meaning you give a negative consequence like timeout or a privilege loss. Once the consequence is given, go back to green and repeat the instruction (it still needs to get done!).


Teaching your child to listen is a process that relies heavily on communication and consistency. Boys Town Behavioral Health Care offers the following tips to help you successfully teach your child the importance of listening: 

  1. Stay calm - Be calm and firm at the same time. Use a neutral tone of voice instead of yelling.
  2. Be direct - A direct command leaves no question in the child's mind what he/she is being told to do. For example, "Pick up your toys" instead of "Mommy likes it when you pick up your toys."
  3. State commands positively - Tell your child what to "GO" do instead of what not to do. Avoid the use of "no," "don't," "stop," "quit it," etc. For example, "Keep your feet on the ground" instead of "Stop climbing on the furniture."
  4. Give one command at a time - Children have a hard time remembering more than one thing at a time. Avoid stringing commands together. For example, "Put your toys in the bin" instead of "Put your toys away, wash your hands, and come to dinner."
  5. Give age-appropriate commands - Commands should be things that the child is developmentally/physically capable of doing. Remember that many tasks have multiple steps. Children may need you to help them break down the command. For example, "Put the clothes on the floor in the hamper" instead of "Clean your room."
  6. Give brief rationales - For example, "We are going to the store, so put on your coat." A longer rationale is not needed and only creates confusion.
  7. Be physically present - Instead of yelling across the room or house, get directly in front of your child, make good eye contact, and show them what you want.
  8. Ask the child to repeat the command - This will ensure that there is no question as to whether your child heard the command.
  9. Reward compliance - Immediately acknowledge that your child has completed a command by using praise, attention, and affection.
  10. Make sure you meant it - Never give a command that you do not intend to see followed through to its completion. Use timeout or gently guide them through the task as necessary.