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Helping Your Child to Comply with Instructions

Posted by Karen Faulkner on
Helping Your Child to Comply with Instructions

OK, here is my number two best secret. This will hopefully revolutionise your understanding and relationship with your child. This is guaranteed to reduce frustration, to both parties - you the parent and your child. You will use the words 'no' and 'stop that' so much less. Guaranteed! 'No' without anything else means very little! And "Stop that!" Stop what? The toddler has just done several things in that last few minutes he's not sure what to stop!

Instruction giving is a vital part of communication. If we don't give instructions, how does the toddler/child know what to do? They can't read your mind. Instructions need to be: short, specific and realistic. Remember that the toddler has the attention span of a butterfly. i.e. not much at all. He has so much going on in that head. So gaining their attention is vital.

Rosalie toddler behaviour

Have I got YOUR attention? OK, now I'll proceed.

When we give an instruction we need to make sure that ...

  • We are standing right next to the child. If we shout from the kitchen to the bedroom for example, then Jacob thinks I haven't heard because he's not in your proximity (selective deafness!)
  • We are looking at the child and into their eyes. Direct eye contact is very important for emphasis and ensuring that the child agrees. It is more likely to reinforce an instruction so we see follow through. Some children are visual learners, that's why for those children giving an instruction without eye contact will not usually work.
  • For visual learners we use visual instructions. So, rather than saying, 'Put your pyjamas on and get ready for bed,' I would say, 'Picture your bedroom and find your pyjamas. They should be on top of the pillow where you took them off this morning'. Here I'm talking about 4 years or older. A child under four will find it hard to locate pyjamas and dress themselves. Children need help with certain activities of daily living until around 3 or 4 years but we still need to teach them in stages so they get there in the end.
  • We are clear in our instructions. Keep it simple. Toddlers and children need simple words and language.
  • We say what we want to happen (and what needs to stop). For example, 'I'd like you to stop whinging, Jacob and talk in your nice quiet voice instead'.
  • Try and avoid naming a negative request e.g. "Stop messing with your food." This reinforces the request as you haven't told James what you want him to do instead.
  • We are realistic in our request.
  • Give positive instructions.
  • Try and avoid using the word "if" as this is a very controlling word and akin to bribery! For example, 'If you eat up all your dinner then you can have dessert'. What you can stay instead is, 'You can have dessert when you've eaten your dinner'. Similar but different meanings behind them. Try and avoid manipulation. Think about guiding and teaching your child instead.

Right, now that we've given the instruction ...

What happens if the child doesn't follow through to action?

We silently stand our ground, count 10 seconds and repeat the instruction with the same guidelines. Your toddler will either agree and carry out request or ... not! What do you do then? You have a choice - either go into quiet time or time out. It depends on how it was responded to and what you were asking.

See my previous blog on tantrums for how to carry out quiet time and time out.

As the parent, it is especially important, that if you give an instruction, then you follow through with the action if you get non-compliance. Why may you ask? Your child will soon work out that you are a total walkover and never follow through!

Remember that I wrote before about boundaries creating security for a child. Well, it's true. We all need some routines and rules or boundaries. They're actually good for us. Laissez-faire parenting looks lovely but in practice is a bit of a disaster. Nobody ends up taking responsibility for anything or actually following through and achieving things.

So what are you waiting for? Try these little gems out! They may need a bit of practice at first. Think about how and what words you're using. Using a positive instruction has a far better result than the negative. As a parent, you'll feel so much less frustrated and enjoy your child a lot more. Another win-win.

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