Do you have a young child who doesn’t obey when you ask her to do something? Does your child smile at your from the top of the table when you’ve asked him to get down? Do you have a newly (within the last year) foster or adopted child who is older but doesn’t do what you ask?
It’s definitely possible that your child is ignoring you,
but it also may be that they don’t understand what you want them to do. Today I will give you some steps to help your child understand you, and after you’ve tried this for a few weeks you’ll know if his behavior is stemming from something else. (All behavior is communication so it’s important to get to the bottom of the actual problem.)
When we were working with speech and developmental therapists to help our son, Jeremiah, they suggested I say, “Get down,” instead of, “Get off the table.” The therapists point was first, to keep it short, and second, to end the sentence with the action I wanted to take place. If we say, “Don’t throw sticks,” the child may only hear the last word or two, “throw sticks.”
At first, I didn’t really like the advice. I come from a background in education and I talked to kids in full sentences. I believe children are much smarter than we give them credit for, and I noticed it first in the children I worked with in an educational setting. I had also talked to my daughter, Payton, in full sentences and it worked well. Even though she was in multiple homes while in foster care before coming to us, she still understood.
But each child is different, and although children from similar backgrounds can have comparable behaviors, they can also have some that vary.
While I’ve talked before about how intelligent our hurting children can be, some can have cognitive delays, and most have developmental delays.
A child who comes from multiple homes (multiple foster care placements, biological homes that are unstable) or even a couple, may not have a language foundation for understanding guidelines, in fact, there probably were no set guidelines. Some days they did whatever they wanted and other days parents and caregivers came down with a vengeance, expecting perfection.
So, with this basis of understanding we can give our children a foundation to start on. When telling your child to do something:
- Keep your sentences short: “Hands off.” “Be gentle.”
- If your child is young you can do hand-over-hand motions to teach them. For example, if your child is hitting, you can gently take their hand and touch your arm softly with it while saying what you deem appropriate, “Soft hands.” “Be gentle.” You can also show them how to be gentle with an animal in the same way. When children haven’t been taught how to be kind, they don’t know how, when children have been dealt with roughly, they will do the same to others. But they can learn.
- Try to end your short statement with the action you want to take place. If your child is jumping on the couch and you want him to sit, it’s counterintuitive to say, “Please sit down on the couch.” Saying, “Sit down,” will communicate exactly what you want your child to do. Your child may be hearing only the last word of your sentence, if you’re saying, “Don’t hit,” they only hear the word “hit.” More examples to use are “Get off,” “Get down,” “Hands off.” (It’s great to teach your child how to be polite through the words you use, but you can teach manners in other areas, not when you want an immediate response, and not until they understand what you’re wanting.)
- Be consistent. If you have a rule like: No Jumping on the Couch, be sure to follow through with keeping your child from jumping on the couch.
- Move. Your child will know you mean what you’re saying when you walk over to them. This doesn’t mean stand over them authoritatively and have power over them, but they do need to know you’re in charge. They need to know that you feel it’s important they follow the rules of the house. If you don’t participate in helping them follow through and you only yell across the room, they don’t take you seriously.
- Praise specifically, genuinely, and often when your child does what you ask. You can say things like, “Thank you for sitting.” “That was great listening.” “You were so gentle with your sister.” Praise when you see your child doing positive things, even when they aren’t asked, to reinforce what good behavior is: “I like how you and your brother are playing together.” “You’re sitting at the table so nicely.” “That’s exactly how to use that toy.”
When you have a child who isn’t obeying, you may want to consider their past experiences. Many times you won’t know what that experience was like. Often I hear parents saying, “Their birth parents weren’t abusive, they just didn’t take good care of the kids,” and other such statements. Really, we don’t know what happened in our child’s previous home(s). We don’t know if our child was screamed at, hit, expected to carry far more responsibility than they should, if expectations of behavior existed, whether those expectations varied. And, for a child who speaks a different language, even after learning your language, there can be a communication breakdown, especially with English, as it’s complicated.
We don’t want to belittle our child’s intelligence, so use full sentences when you aren’t asking your child to do something. Simple directions can go a long ways and you can build on them as your child begins to follow those directions.