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4 Reasons Why Your Child Is Not Listening

Spoiler: You may not be giving them the opportunity.

Key points

  • Parents can fall into parenting traps that can increase a child's misbehavior.
  • Maximizing the power of attention can increase compliance and appropriate behavior.
  • Parent-Child Interaction Therapy is an effective treatment for child misbehavior.

Most parents of young children who come to our offices have a similar complaint: “My child won’t listen.” Parents share their experiences of frustration and exhaustion due to their child’s inability to listen and follow directions. These parents report repeating themselves multiple times before their child complies or eventually doing the task themselves. While watching Finding Nemo recently, I was struck by one of the opening scenes in which we see Marlin parenting practices. He is portrayed as anxious and overprotective, but I also noticed how extremely bossy Marlin acted. Furthermore, his incessant demands of Nemo left him little opportunity to notice how much Nemo was paying attention to him. This is a problem I see often in my practice: Parents can unknowingly give too many commands that do not allow for any follow-through and fail to notice when their children are compliant.

What is a command?

A command is telling your child what to do. In Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), commands are classified as Direct or Indirect. Direct commands are declarative statements with an expectation of a certain response; whether the response can be completed is a separate story. ‘Please clean up your room’ is an example of a direct command. Indirect commands are commands or directions that can be inferred as being optional. However, in practice, when parents use indirect commands, they typically are not optional, which sets their child up in a trap. ‘Can you pick up your toys?’ is an Indirect Command because the question makes it seem optional. The child can say ‘no’ in response to this question — and this is when parents usually respond with “well it’s not an option.” If it is not an option, then do not ask.

In Finding Nemo, Marlin falls into common parenting traps that lead to continued misbehavior in children. Marlin’s biggest downfall comes from four areas: too many commands, fueling negative behavior, preventing opportunities for compliance, and lack of acknowledgment for compliance.

Too demanding

I coded the first 5 minutes of Marlin’s interactions with Nemo using the coding system I use when conducting PCIT sessions. During this 5-minute interval, Marlin issued 28 commands! Imagine your boss giving you 28 commands in 5 minutes. It is nearly impossible to follow 28 commands exactly in 5 minutes. Further, it is difficult for parents to follow through with consequences after 28 commands. When the majority of your interactions with your children are commanded, whether direct or indirect, the relationship can become defined by obedience and waiting for the next task. Instead, these relationships could be filled with fun moments, curiosity, and nurturance. One of the effects of Marlin’s frequent demands is that he constantly repeats himself. Marlin’s frequent back-to-back demands of Nemo not only exhaust Nemo, but himself as well. When the exhaustion kicks in, it leads to two options: First, increased frustration which could result in screaming, threats, or unsafe parenting practices. For example, when Marlin began to yell, “Stop! You take one more move, mister, don’t you dare! If you put one fin on that boat!.” The other option is surrender, which results in negotiation, coaxing, or the parent completing the task themselves. Take this moment at the beginning of Marlin and Nemo’s exchange:

Marlin: Ah ah ah, forgot to brush.

Nemo: sighs

Marlin: Do you want this anemone to sting you?

Nemo: …yes.”

Marlin’s attempt to negotiate with Nemo using reason backfired because there would be no reason that Marlin could give to make Nemo want to brush. The point is Nemo has to brush even if he does not want to. Marlin giving a more effective command could have avoided this power struggle. Additionally, decreasing the number of commands Marlin gives decreases opportunities for conflict. One question for parents to consider before making demands is to determine ‘Is this necessary?’ One way to address children’s behavior is to use natural consequences. If your child wants to wear shorts to school instead of pants, the natural consequence is that they will be cold, and maybe next time they will decide to wear pants.

Supplying fuel to the fire

Children crave the attention of their important people. Children also cannot tell the difference between positive and negative attention. The majority of Marlin’s commands and statements were pulling attention to the negative behaviors. Marlin runs out to Nemo screaming “Nemo! No!” and accosting him for behavior he did not commit. Nemo was not even considering going to touch the boat until Marlin made a fuss of it and directed attention to it. Words like ‘no’, ‘don’t’, and ‘stop’ are categorized as Negative Talk in PCIT. Negative Talk is avoided because it gives attention to the negative behavior. The minute you say ‘don’t touch that,' all your child is thinking about is touching it. In PCIT we coach parents through a specific and highly effective ignore procedure to remove attention from negative behaviors.

Effective commands are positively stated, meaning they tell the child what to do instead of what not to do. If the goal is to not give attention to negative behavior, it is not effective to tell a child not to do it. Instead of “don’t run in the house,” try “please using your walking feet.” Instead of “stop yelling” try “use your inside voice.”

Making impossible commands

The mark of an effective command is the other person's ability to comply with it. There are several behaviors that parents can unknowingly commit that make commands impossible to follow including successive commands and commands with no measure of compliance.

Successive commands are back-to-back commands. Young children listen better when given one task at a time and an appropriate length of time to start complying without introducing the distraction of a new command. Marlin ends up giving Nemo 6 commands in 12 seconds when he tells him to stay away from the boat. In PCIT we encourage parents to wait 5 seconds (silently) without saying anything following giving a command. This time period allows the child to hear the command and make a decision to follow it without distraction. When parents introduce new commands or distractors, it takes away from the child’s compliance and can result in a parent not paying attention to compliance when it happens. Introducing the 5-second rule and waiting for compliance also reduces the need for parents to constantly repeat themselves. When we set the expectation that the child is to comply with a command the first time it is said, repetitions are not needed.

Commands with no measure of compliance include yelling a child’s name. When Marlin yells “Nemo!” it is not clear what Marlin wants from Nemo. He is demanding a response which makes it a command; however, the response is not clear so there is no real way for Nemo to comply. Children (and adults) are not mindreaders. Simply yelling the child's name does not indicate what behavior you want from your child. It is important to be specific.

Acknowledge compliance

Marlin’s final misstep was a failure to acknowledge Nemo’s compliance. When we do not praise or acknowledge (reinforce) positive behavior, it will decrease. When Nemo brushed after he was told, Marlin could have ensured that the brushing behavior would continue by praising it. When Marlin tells Nemo to stay close to him while crossing the intersection, he could ensure Nemo continues to comply by praising his compliance. Remember: Any behavior we give attention to is bound to happen again so it is especially important to give attention to positive appropriate behaviors to ensure they continue occurring.

Marlin and Nemo's Therapy

Marlin’s parenting strategies are not uncommon for most human parents. An important consideration to explain Marlin’s behavior was the trauma he experienced losing Nemo’s mother and 399 of their other children. Marlin’s traumatic loss impacts his parenting and view of the world which can also impact his attachment relationship with Nemo. Parent-Child Interaction Therapy is an evidence-based treatment program for young children with behavior problems. Beth Troutman’s Integration of Working Models of Attachment into Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (IoWA-PCIT) incorporates the research of attachment theory to address the relationship while addressing behavior. Marlin and Nemo could greatly benefit from IoWA-PCIT as it would provide an opportunity for understanding Marlin’s part in his behaviors while using proven strategies to maximize Nemo’s best behaviors.

References

Troutman, B. (2016), IoWA-PCIT, Integration of Working Models of Attachment into Parent-Child Interaction Therapy, unpublished manuscript. https://pcit.lab.uiowa.edu

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