Ask An Expert / Behavior Problems

I have a 9-year-old son who won’t listen to his mother. What can we do?

Tips for effective discipline

Kristin Carothers, PhD
Kristin Carothers, PhD

Clinical Psychologist, ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center

Child Mind Institute

I have a 9-year-old son who won't listen to his mother. He ignores her, says stuff like "if you would let me go outside I will be good, but if you don't I am not gonna." I have three other children in the house and I am afraid that the other children are going to start acting the same way because they see him get away with it. I travel out of town for my job and my son needs to listen to his mother and show her respect. Is there anything that she can do or that I can do?

It sounds like your child is engaging in negotiation, which is completely normal for most kids at this age. They’re learning how to make their wants known and get their needs met. At the same time, the way he’s trying to get his needs met isn’t behavior that you want to encourage, so it’s good that you’re looking for strategies to stop it.

Give attention strategically

The first thing to do is actively ignore minor misbehavior. Giving too much attention to negative behaviors can actually reinforce them, because then kids learn that acting out is one way they can get your attention. So when your son says that he’s not going to be good if he can’t go outside, his mother should ignore him — don’t look at him, don’t give him any attention. If there’s a child nearby who is engaged in a task she likes she should give that child positive attention — say “Thanks for doing your homework, Johnny,” for example. Then, when your nine-year-old is quiet, she can say, “Thank you for being quiet. I hear that you would like to go outside.” Then she can set up the terms on which he can go outside. Instead of letting him try to set the terms, she should give him some “if/then” choices. For example: “If you finish your homework then you can go outside. If you don’t finish your homework then you won’t be able to go outside. I think it’s great that you want to go outside. Homework is your responsibility, so as soon as your homework is done you’ll be able to go outside for 30 minutes.”

Besides ignoring minor misbehaviors, another one of the basic principles of parent behavior management training is to frequently give kids praise when they are following directions or engaging in positive behaviors. This is often known as “catching them being good.” So whenever your son is using a nice voice with his mom, she should say “Thank you for speaking calmly to me. I really like it when you use nice words.” Even if he wasn’t trying to be positive or calm, she is “catching him being good,” and she is reinforcing that behavior with praise, which all kids want.

Simplify directions

One other strategy is to rethink how you give directions. There is a specific sequence for giving direct commands that can be more effective. So let’s say the command is to take a bath. She should give the command in close proximity to him, making eye contact with him, and she should say it simply and directly. So the command could be “Please go take a bath.” Then she should wait until he follows through with the command. As soon as he follows through she should say, “Thank you for going to take your bath. It’s a good idea for us to take a bath at night so we don’t have to rush in the morning.” That’s just an example. Any time a parent gives a command it should be simple and immediately followed by praise. If you want you can give kids information about why you need the command done, but you should do that either before giving the command or after praising him for doing it — never in between. If you think your son needs it, you can also promise him some kind of motivating reward that he will get after taking the bath.

This sequence is important because sometimes as parents we give commands that have too many parts, which decreases the likelihood that children will comply. So you want to say one thing at a time and you don’t want to give a command more than two times. After two times it becomes nagging and the kid learns to tune you out. When giving commands it’s also important to consistently use a calm voice, because otherwise kids might learn that mom isn’t being serious until she yells, so they’ll start only responding to commands given in a loud voice.

Provide incentives

If your kid needs extra motivation to follow directions, you may want to set up a home report card system. To do this you can pick some goals that you want him to work on, and then he can earn points each day for meeting his goals. Then in the middle of the week and at the end of the week he can turn in the points for a special privilege. You can find examples of this kind of report card online.

If things don’t get better it might also be a good idea to seek out a therapist who does parent management training, which would give your family some more individualized support.