Testing the limits isn’t just normal; it’s crucial
We’re human beings, not robots. We want to raise our children to grow up to think for themselves. But to develop this skill, children (and even teenagers) also must try out different ways of thinking and behaving to see what happens. They also need to make some of their own choices and decisions. As challenging as this can sometimes be for parents, recognising it as an important developmental skill can help parents understand what’s happening. This helps parents learn to handle such situations more effectively, and teach new skills.
Everyone’s an individual
We all admire the character in a story who stands up for what they believe in, fights for their freedom and follows their dream. But nobody ever asks their mum or dad what it was like having to get them through toddlerhood! Some children like to experiment with different behaviour more than others. So you may see your child deliberately repeating the action they’ve just been asked to stop, purely so they can see what happens next. You’ve literally just asked them not to do something, and yet there they are doing the same thing again, maybe even with a big grin. They may even see this as a game. It’s a mistake to treat this situation as you would if an adult were deliberately ignoring you. Instead, think of yourself as the teacher helping your child as they try to figure out what will happen next.
What have they learned already?
So now that you realise you’re in the middle of a behaviour experiment, ask yourself what’s happened when the child has behaved this way previously (not only with you, but perhaps with other adults or carers)? Was there a lecture? A scolding? Did you look at them and talk to them, when up until then you hadn’t been paying attention to them? Did someone laugh, or record a video to put on social media, or did they offer a treat as a distraction or a bribe? Even if your child wasn’t rewarded with, say, a toy or food in such a situation, parents may sometimes accidentally reward children by giving them extra attention when they don’t do as they’re asked. This attention doesn’t have to be positive attention. It could include things like reasoning, discussing, arguing, nagging or repeating instructions over and over.
Mixed messages can teach the wrong lesson
If you don’t always react the same way when the problem occurs, the child may not be sure what reaction to expect. In other words, their brain has been given a ‘reward’, even if it’s in the form of negative attention, that is unpredictable. One of the most well-established principles of learning is that an ‘unpredictable reward’ really cements learning of a new skill or behaviour. Unfortunately, in this context, that means it’s the perfect way to teach and encourage problem behaviour So if parents let the matter slide one day, then expect their child to follow instructions the next day, the child becomes less likely to do as they’re asked.
"Are they even listening?"
If you’re a parent, you may have at one time or another found yourself saying something like: “Why can’t you just do as you’re told?!” or “I’ve asked you to do that five times now!”
While this is a common scenario, this approach is unlikely to change anything. It will probably only result in rising frustration for everyone. It can effectively ‘teach’ parents to yell, and children to only respond when a parent is yelling. This is not good for anyone! Instead, it can be helpful to take a step back and think more about why this might be occurring, especially if it’s happening a lot.
Hearing versus listening
For a minority of kids, there’s an extra problem with following verbal instructions, which is that their brain simply isn’t processing the information properly. This can occur even when the child’s hearing is fine (although you should also have that tested if you think it’s an issue, especially if your child has had problems with ear infections). If you think there are other issues complicating the situation, you may find it helpful to talk with a professional who can observe you and your child interacting. Triple P also has a number of resources and programs that can help with problems such as Attention Deficit Disorder (which can occur with or without hyperactivity).
Children need limits and simple rules for their own safety and to get along with others. But it’s unrealistic to expect children to always do as they are told. It really only becomes a problem when it occurs frequently, such as when a child follows less than half of the instructions given to them. At this point, it’s a terrific idea to get help and support in figuring out effective ways to deal with the problem early on, rather than accidentally making it worse.
When parents have reasonable expectations and set fair limits, and use appropriate consequences that aren’t harsh or punitive but instead are designed to teach self-regulation, children are more likely to be cooperative and well adjusted. Over time, with calm and consistent parenting, children will learn to follow instructions and get on with others, while still being able to think for themselves.