One of the most common requests I get from parents is, “I’ve tried everything and my child still won’t listen. What can I do?” There are several factors involved in a child’s willingness to cooperate. A child not doing what she is told is less about “not listening” and more about how able she feels to do what you want her to do. Before getting frustrated, try asking yourself the following:

1. How full is her attachment tank?

When I hear this, the first thing I do is determine how full or empty that child’s connection (or “ALIVE tanks“) is with her parents. Children will feel more inclined to cooperate when they feel securely attached to the person delivering the instructions.

2. Is she compromised?

The next thing is to check that kid-compromisers are not too high, as these also make it very hard for children to hear and want to follow your instructions. Kid-compromisers are anything that put a child’s focus on getting their physical needs met, and thus not on you. If a child (and adult) is preoccupied on eating, sleeping or regrouping due to feeling hungry, tired or over-stimulated, he is extremely unlike to be able to listen to you.

3. Do you have unreasonable expectations?

Sometimes very well-meaning parents ask too much of their children for their age and physical abilities. One parent shared her intense frustration with taking her young son to the grocery store and struggling to keep him from racing around, grabbing things on the shelves and begging for junk food. I asked her, “Is it possible to get groceries without him?” She said it was, so I encouraged her to pick her battles and just try again in a few months. In the meantime, I asked her to train him how to be in a grocery store, and what would happen if he wasn’t able to do what she needed.

Another easy fix is to decrease temptation by childproofing your home to a degree that your child can be in areas without you needing to constantly say, “No. Don’t touch that,” or “Don’t open that drawer.”

4. Is she dealing with intense emotions?

It is normal to have big, strong feelings on a regular basis. I know big reactions can come at inopportune times (like trying to get out the door) but when time is taken to calm everyone down and regroup, kids will be more able to hear you.

Meet the emotional intensity with empathy. Reel in your negative self-talk like “I don’t have time for this crap!” and look at your emotional child. Connect with her by asking yourself, What does my child need right now? I know you might have a need to get somewhere or do something, but these emotional outbursts tend to decrease or settle when a child feels important to her parent and sees a parent using a calm-down plan (and is taught how to have one, too.) If you are having a tough time being empathetic, as I certainly have some days, read this article that I wrote to address that feeling.

5. Was she surprised?

Children need to know ahead of time when a transition is coming. Use signals and warnings to avoid surprising a child with an, “OK, time to go home.” Here is an example of a morning routine to reduce surprises and increase cooperation.

6. Are you using clear instructions?

Use simple, clear instructions to deliver your message. Remember to use a statement like, “It’s shoes-on time,” versus a yes/no question (which will likely be met with “NO!”). Oh, and don’t throw an, “OK?” at the end of an instruction — that turns it into a yes/no question.

7. Are you being friendly?

You don’t need to be coercive to get kids to do what you want. Be friendly, be fun, be caring and smile. Find a way to deliver your message in a firm and friendly way. Do you like to be nagged at or continually told what to do?

Here are examples of ways to communicate that encourage cooperation:
Instead of, “Go wash your hands.” Use: “Everyone with clean hands is eating.” (smile)
Instead of, “I told you three times already to get your shoes on!” Use: “When this song is over, you know it’s time to put your shoes on.” (Use of a transition signal and a when/then.)

I continually post tips like these, awesome articles by colleagues and questions for parents on my Facebook page. I’d love to see you and hear from you over there!