Ask An Expert / Parenting Challenges

I have a child who is very good but won’t follow directions. What should I do?

Parents can phrase requests in a way that makes kids more likely to follow through

Kristin Carothers, PhD
Kristin Carothers, PhD

Clinical Psychologist, ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center

Child Mind Institute

I have a very bright, very mature, and good almost-5-year-old. We have never had a tantrum, she daily tells me that she loves me and she even gives me emotional support and comforts me when I need it. She often helps me with her 20-month-old brother. But she doesn't follow some simple directions — either because she thinks she knows better, or because she doesn't have self-control or because she is simply spoiled. For example, I ask her not to jump on the sofa while I am gone because her brother will jump, too, but she does anyway. Or I ask her to stay in the bathroom after her bath while I get the hair dryer because it's cold in the other rooms. I return to find her in another room playing with her brother. What should I do?

It sounds like you have a really kind, mature child who enjoys being helpful and comforting. Like most children, she sometimes has difficulty obeying your requests. As parents, there are ways to improve our children’s behavior by giving them commands that are very clear, simple and direct, and immediately following those commands with specific praise for their behavior. These types of statements increase the chances that children will follow through.

In your letter, you indicated that after telling your daughter not to do something, she engages in that behavior. We know from research that it’s best to give kids information about what you want them to do, rather than what you don’t. So instead of saying, “Don’t jump on the sofa because your brother will jump too,” provide her with a clear, direct instruction for appropriate behavior: “Please sit on the sofa.” These types of instructions make it more likely that your child will comply. They also give you the opportunity to give your child positive attention and praise for listening to you, which is essential.

Keep your commands and instructions simple — just give one direction at a time — and remember to make eye contact and be in close proximity to your child when giving an instruction. Before walking away, wait for follow through. After she does what you ask, immediately praise her behavior. Giving praise that is specific lets your daughter knows exactly what she did right. Saying “Thank you for sitting on the sofa” instead of just “thank you,” makes it more likely she will repeat the appropriate behavior in the future.

You could also give her information about why you want her to sit on the sofa. For instance, before giving her a command you might say, “It’s important to sit safely on the sofa so you don’t get hurt.” Then you would give the command, “Please sit on the sofa.” Wait at least five seconds for compliance and follow through with praise and information about why the behavior is important. You might say, “You’re a big sister. Sitting safely on the sofa gives you the chance to teach your little brother the right way to sit.” Try to remember to only give additional information before a command is given or after praising your child for obeying your request.

Another approach is to give her if/then statements. For example, “If you sit on the toilet seat until I come back, then you will get to help me dry your hair,” or, “If you stay on the toilet seat until I come back, you will have more time to play after your hair is dried.” Another approach is to give an if/then statement for a consequence: “If you leave the bathroom before I come back, then you won’t be able to help dry your hair.” These types of statements provide children with opportunities to make choices, and let them know there will be more time for fun if they listen.

In general, we also recommend actively ignoring any negative behaviors that aren’t aggressive, dangerous, or destructive. It is better to ignore annoying behaviors such as as whining or tantrums and then immediately praise appropriate behavior when it occurs. In your daughter’s case you might want to express your enthusiasm about how she is speaking in a calm tone of voice, listening, or using polite words. You can remind her that when she listens, she shows her brother how to listen, and when she sits calmly in her chair she shows him how to stay calm and safe.

If these techniques alone aren’t enough, you can also explore using Daily Report Card behavioral charts and reward systems to improve problematic behaviors. To do this I would start by identifying one or two behaviors you want to target. For your daughter, it might be listening the first time or sitting safely on furniture. Every time she listens the first time, for example, she earns a point. In the evening she can turn her points in for a sticker — maybe five points equal one sticker. Her points could be tallied twice a week and exchanged for a special privilege (like ice cream, special TV time, or game time with mom and dad). Rewards do not have to cost money-your positive attention and time may be sufficiently rewarding for your child.