Psychologically Speaking: My son doesn't listen to me

Your goal should not be to worry about what your children won't do but rather to convince them to do what you ask of them.

Dear Dr. Batya, I feel like all I do some days is nag. My five-year-old son tunes me out and I just can't seem to get him to do what I want him to do without a struggle. I'm not asking for him to do impossible things but I do expect him to be able to follow directions. - R.H., Tel Aviv Your goal should not be to worry about what your children won't do but rather to convince them to do what you ask of them. We call this compliance and it is in part fueled by finding the right way to motivate your children. Children are motivated when they are offered something they want or value. The average child, for example, does not want to feel it's important to go upstairs and get you a diaper for his brother, but he may be motivated to do so by the ice cream he may get afterward or by the story you offer to read. Many children of this age want to please their parents. For those who don't, it is easy enough to teach them that this is important because you can shower them with lots of praise and approval for good behavior. At some point you want your children to do the "right thing" because they intrinsically want to do it and not because of external factors. That said, you have to pick your battles because your son won't always do everything you ask of him. One way to motivate your son is to enable him to be part of the solution. Give him choices or options whenever possible, such as "which shirt would you like to wear today (if he can wear anything in the drawer)?" or "would you like to wear the red or green shirt (if those are the two choices)?" and he'll be more likely to want to comply. If you need something done right away then be direct, clear and use easy language so there are no misunderstandings. Be calm, firm and consistent. Anger never helps. If you need something done within the half hour or by the end of the day, let him know this but recognize that five year olds have little conception of time. With younger children you are best not giving directives unless they are to be performed within a short time span as your son will likely get distracted and you may find yourself feeling frustrated or repeating your request. Speaking of repeating requests, your son should know by your words and actions that you are serious. If he knows that you won't consistently follow through, he may simply ignore you. If he does respond right away and you reward him, by praising him, sitting with him or chatting after a video, for instance, you'll more likely see that behavior increase. Rewarding any behavior will lead to its increase, so if you don't like something, be careful to not pay attention to it, and thereby inadvertently reward it. Think, for example, how much reinforcement a class clown gets and why they continue behaving as they do when the teacher repeatedly asks the child to stop. Give only one request at a time, and never ask your son if he wants to do something because the answer will be no. Instead tell him to please do the task and give him the structure he needs to be successful. Keep your message short and sweet, but tell him what to do and not just what not to do. For example, instead of saying "don't hit your brother," say "keep your hands in your pocket and come tell me when you are upset." When all is said and done, in order for your son to complete a task, he has to be able to listen to you. Is the issue that he won't listen - something requiring active cooperation - or is it a matter of his sense of hearing? If you have serious concerns, he may need his hearing evaluated or his ability to process and comprehend assessed. Try calling him by name to get his attention, putting your hand on his shoulder or looking him in the eye. Make sure you're in the same room, turn off the computer and television and ask others to be quiet if your son is easily distracted. Try asking him to repeat what you said if in doubt. Once you're sure that he is listening, you've dealt with the hardest part of the battle. When you do make a request, recognize that patience, level of fatigue and stress level will all play a part in determining your success. So what happens when all else fails and your son just won't listen to you even when you're constantly trying to catch him "being good" and rewarding him? Then try even harder to notice even the smallest things he does, while not getting into a power struggle or trying to reason with a five-year-old. If that fails, don't continue to warn, yell, spank or nag but use "time out" for no more than five minutes maximum at any one time. If he sees that you care, that you praise him for his actions and that you value what he has done, he'll be far more likely to try and please you. While your son won't be perfect, if you continue to use these strategies, they will work and you will see your son become more compliant. The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra'anana. [email protected]