Reduce Parenting Stress by Giving Good Directions

“My kids don’t listen to me.” This familiar phrase is one of the most common stresses of parenting.  It really means that children are not following directions and doing what they are told to do.

One way to alleviate this stress is to make it more likely that children will listen by giving them good directions.

Giving good directions is not necessarily easy.  If it were, not as many parents would become stressed when their children didn’t listen. But with practice, you can learn to give directions that your children are more likely to follow so that your stress will decrease.

Here are a few steps to better directions:

  • Tell children what TO do, instead of what NOT to do. Often we get caught up with “no, stop, don’t” commands. While it seems like these should produce the “right” behavior, really they just tell the child one thing not to do, but don’t give him any idea about what he should do instead. So for example, if you say “Don’t hit your sister!”, then does that mean that your child can pinch, bite or pull his sister’s hair? Of course that is not what you mean. But consider how much easier it would be if you start by telling your child what you want him TO do with his sister: “Play with your sister quietly and keep your hands to yourself, please.”
  • Make directions simple yet clear. Let’s say you want your child to play with her friend and share her toys. Instead of saying “Don’t snatch”, you decide to say “Play nicely”. That’s great practice of telling your daughter what to do! However, “nicely” is kind of vague. And it might be difficult for your child to know what that means. So be specific about what you want her to do. You could say “Please share with your friend. That means she can take a turn with the toy and then you can take a turn.”
  • Pre-teach expectations. You can set your child up to successfully follow through with directions by letting them know what to expect ahead of time (pre-teaching). No one likes to be interrupted when they’re in the middle of doing something and told to instantly stop and do something else. This would get really frustrating and makes it less likely that your children will follow directions! So instead, if you know that you are going to want your child to clean up soon, start early by saying something like, “In 5 minutes it’s going to be time to clean up so we can leave for school. Finish up that game so you’ll be ready to clean up in 5 minutes.” When we prepare our children to be ready to transition to a different activity, it makes it easier for them to follow our good directions, and less stressful for both of you!
  • Make sure you let you child know when he is following directions correctly. Sometimes it can be such a relief that a child is following directions that we forget to let him know that he is doing well. When your child does what you ask her to do, reinforce that behavior by telling her that she did a good job. And, when you give her specific feedback on what she did well, this makes it easier for her to do a good job the next time. That could sound like “I really like how you shared with your friend. You did a good job waiting for her to take her turn before you took your turn.” This will increase the likelihood that your child will share well in the future because you told her what to do, how to do it, and gave her positive feedback when she did do it.

Giving good directions takes practice. So don’t get discouraged, and stressed, if your children don’t follow directions perfectly the first time you try these steps. (And, realistically, children won’t follow directions perfectly; 70% of the time is the average.) Take a deep breath and remember that you are teaching your children how to follow good directions.  It will pay off in the long run and that will help to reduce your stress. Then, think of all the yoga (or whatever you like to do to relax) you can do in all the time that you won’t have to spend telling your children “no, stop, don’t!”

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Image: © Oksana Lozinska |

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