How to Get Your Child to Listen The First Time With One Simple Strategy

One of the most frustrating aspects of parenting is figuring out how to get your child to listen the *first time* you ask them to do something. Nothing is more irritating that feeling like you need to repeat yourself, yell, or resort to punishment over simple requests. If you are struggling with little kids who don’t listen the first time, stick with me for the one simple strategy that actually works.

But first, here’s why it doesn’t work to repeat yourself in the first place:

Why it doesn’t work to repeat yourself

It tells your child that they don’t need to listen the first time

When your child has clearly heard your directions and is refusing to do what you’ve asked, repeating yourself only sends the message that they didn’t have to respond to your first request.

Your tone and body language escalates

Needing to repeat yourself over and over again is incredibly frustrating, which is why it often leads to yelling. Yelling sends the message that you are not in control over the situation, and your child senses that.

Your child learns that you aren’t going to take action

Young children crave limits and boundaries. It’s what makes them feel safe, secure, and loved. Whenever you don’t follow through on something you’ve asked them to do, they are actually left feeling more insecure. It makes them wonder on what other boundaries you might not stand your ground.

One simple strategy for first time listening

The next time you ask your child to do something and they refuse, stall, or argue….calmly and gently follow through, right away.

It looks like this:

You are about to leave the house and you ask your child to get on their shoes. They grin and run off in the other direction with clearly no intention of doing what you’ve asked. This is when you normally would be tempted to “over talk” the situation, negotiate, or dive into punishments or rewards. Instead, walk over to your child and say:

“It looks like you need a little help. I can help you with your shoes.”

You either bring the shoes to them or hold their hand and walk to where the shoes are. When your child realizes that there’s no choice about it happening, 90% of the time they will decide to do it on their own without your help. If they do end up wanting your help, then help them and chalk it up to a lesson in altruism. Say kindly, “I’m sure next time you will do it all on your own.”

Why this strategy works:

Young children crave independence. They want to be able to do things on their own, without your help. Because of this natural desire, most of the time they will refuse your help and simply choose to do whatever you are asking them to do on their own.

When they do accept your help, it’s likely because they either 1) actually need help (they may be tired, the task may seem too difficult, etc) or 2) they need to feel close to you. Refusal to cooperate is often a sign that your child needs to reconnect. Either way, you are meeting their needs by being physically present with them.

What does this strategy teach your child?

That you are confidently in charge of the situation.

You have no need to yell because you are prepared to help them right away, before you get upset.

That when you ask them to do something, it’s going to happen.

You aren’t going to say it a second time, negotiate, punish or bribe. You are able to help them if they aren’t able to do it on their own.

That you understand them and their need for autonomy.

You understand that even little things that seem like “no big deal” to us as adults can trigger big feelings in your child. Acting out and not listening are just one of the ways that your child shows you that they are struggling.

Doubts?

I know what you are thinking: How can I possibly “help” my child complete any task that I ask of them?

It’s actually quite simple. Most of the things that we ask young children to do are logistical… getting from one place to another or accomplishing small tasks. Putting on clothes, getting into their carseat, cleaning up their toys.

Think back to when your child was a newborn. You had to do absolutely everything for them, right? As your child grew and gained more practical skills, you slowly began passing on more self-care tasks to them as they demonstrated their capability.

Just as you can give your child more opportunities to do things on their own, you can also “reel back” some of those responsibilities whenever they are struggling. A child who is misbehaving, refusing to do what you ask, or tantruming, is demonstrating in that moment that they need some help.

*Important*

This approach only works when it’s done in a calm and gentle way. You as the parent set the stage for the tone of the interaction. Your child should never see your help as a punishment. Your intentions should always be to truly help your child, not to manipulate or control them into submission.

Keep in mind

This strategy requires your full attention and commitment, especially when you are first implementing it. When you ask your child to do something, you need to be able to stop whatever it is you are doing to physically help them if needed. For this reason, it’s really important that you don’t make requests that you aren’t willing or able to follow through on.

This approach can feel hard at first because it requires your presence and your consistency. But if you stick with it, I promise it will make your life so much EASIER because your child will listen to you the very first time.

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12 thoughts on “How to Get Your Child to Listen The First Time With One Simple Strategy

  1. What should I do when I go to help or walk her over to her shoes she goes dead weight or throws a temper tantrum? She is turning 2 in a month…

    1. If she drops to the floor you can always bring the shoes to her. Or you can pick her up and carry her to the shoes. If you have time you can wait the tantrum out until she is calm and then try again. The key is keeping your tone neutral- which is always the most difficult thing! Hope that helps!

  2. Hi Katie,

    Any thoughts on how to handle your child if he/she decides to throw a fit or resist your help when you come to help them?

    Laura

    1. Hi Laura,
      How old is your child? In general I would say just help them follow through as gently as possible. If you need to get to the car for example, you can still pick your child up and bring them to the car even if they are crying. The next time they will likely choose to do it on their own since they know it’s going to happen either way. If it’s a situation that isn’t time sensitive, you can always wait out the tantrum until they are calm and then give them help to follow through with the request if needed. The most important thing is staying calm through the tantrum (easier said than done of course!) so that you can help your child the moment they start to calm down. I hope this helps!
      -Katie

      1. What if you have more than one child, and your patience and time is run thin. I have had to deal with multiple tantrums at the same time or back to back of each other. How do I stay calm and help every child at the exact same time? (I have 4 littles – 10mo, 2yr,4yr,6yr)

        1. You are only one person, and you can only be at one place at a time! I hope you can extend yourself some grace because what you are doing is not easy, mama! With your little ones being so young, you may need to implement a variety of strategies in order to get everyone from point A to point B. Try building up your 4-year-old and 6-year-old as the “helpers” and give them meaningful jobs as much as possible (especially when it’s time to leave the house). Can the 6-year-old help get the 2-year-old’s shoes on? Maybe your 4-year-old can bring the diaper bag to the car? Talk to the older ones about how important it is for them to be obedient and how it affects everyone in the house when they are (and aren’t) obedient. Make everything a “team effort” as much as possible. Being playful and making things a game also goes a long way (try “Are you going to hop like a bunny or run like a cheetah to the door?”). The key is keeping things positive and to not let them see your frustration as much as possible (easier said than done, I know). Staying calm despite being exhausted and triggered is the single most difficult thing we do as parents! I dive into this topic more in this post: Hang in there, this too shall pass!

  3. Hi Katie,

    Talk me through this scenario…been doing a version of this for a few weeks now but the only time she challenges me in it is when I ask her to come to me. Not every time but about half. So when I go to her to “help her” she bolts laughing as she goes. So I end up chasing her making it a super fun game.

    Any thoughts??

    1. Ah yes, bolting is such a complicated issue because you definitely don’t want to make it a fun game. I personally handle this in a couple of different ways. Firstly, I would try to reduce the amount of times that you actually say the words “come here.” The words itself could be triggering the game for her. Try to get yourself in close proximity BEFORE you actually give the directions so that you are already within arms reach if she needs your help. This should cut down a lot of the issues, but I know this isn’t possible 100% of the time. If the bolting happens inside your house, I would avoid diving or running to catch her. The fast paced “chasing” is what makes this game fun for her. Instead keep your face neutral and walk towards her until she is in a corner of the room and you can pick her up. If the running away happens in public or another unsafe place, do whatever you need to do to keep her safe, even if it’s momentarily a game to her. You can always do more explicit teaching on safety after the fact. Hope this helps! Hang in there mama, this phase too shall pass!
      -Katie

  4. Thank you for this.

    I have been doing something similar to this for a while with my daughter (15 months old) because this is the technique we used with the kids at a daycare I used to work at. I like that it is a gentle way to parent without just letting your child take control and do whatever he or she wants.

    It has worked pretty well with my daughter so far, but lately I have been giving her a lot of “chances” to do it on her own which may be why she has been getting lazy with her listening. I think I need to get a little more strict about listening the first time.

    Thank you for the encouragement and the inspiration!

    1. Such a good point you made about giving a lot of “chances.” It can be so hard because we want our kids to be independent and do things on their own but we also have to set the precedence that we only ask ONCE. Otherwise it gets too hard to draw the line of how many chances are given and our kids get confused. They actually feel most secure when they know that we only ask one time before they are given help. Thank you for stopping by!

  5. I love this! I’m definitly going to try this when getting my toddler to complete a task. I do have a question, how do you get your child to listen when you tell them NOT to do something? We have a newborn and I need her to keep quiet sometimes and it touch the baby, how do you get them to listen in a scenario around their behaviour?

    1. You can use the same approach when it comes to getting your child NOT to do something too. For example, if they won’t listen when you ask them not to touch something breakable, you can say “It looks like it’s too hard for you not to touch this. I’m going to keep it safe.” Then pick up the item and put it out of reach. The same applies if they are throwing or mistreating toys… the toys are then kept “safe” elsewhere. As long as you are close by, you can “help” your toddler to not to touch the baby by standing in between them or facilitating a gentle interaction. But when it comes to keeping your little one quiet while the baby is sleeping that’s a little trickier because you can’t actually MAKE your child be quiet. What has worked well in this situation for me is to either A) have my child take a “break” (I would say “We need to be quiet while the baby is sleeping, let’s step outside and get some air until we are ready to be quiet in the house”) or B) engage him in a quiet activity. Get out a puzzle or a book (or any other quiet activity that your child enjoys) and sit with them and do it together. Sometimes that special time together is all your child needs to change their behavior 🙂

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