How to Get My Child to Obey: Parenting Tips that Work

By Joseph Sacks, LCSW

Every parent has gone through a period where their child refuses to follow instructions. Children often misbehave or disobey because a want or need is not being met. When we, as parents, recognize why our children are being uncooperative, we can take steps to improve communication and compliance.

The following parenting tips can help you address behavior challenges so you no longer have to think, “I don’t know how to get my child to obey.”

Please bear in mind that the following principles represent a parenting ideal, and I don’t expect anyone to fulfill them perfectly. Therefore, have patience with yourself and try to implement new ideas gradually.

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How To Get My Child To Obey: Fulfill His or Her Emotional Needs!

Fulfilling your child’s emotional needs will give him or more pleasure and increase happiness. We fulfill those emotional needs by reflecting back our child’s feelings, letting him or her know that we know how they feel. For example, “Oh, you’re feeling so disappointed that your friend can’t come over," or, "You really want an ice cream before dinner I wish I could give you one." We further support our children by respecting and honoring their desires and preferences. We do this by allowing them to make choices and control their lives as much as is safely possible. Finally, we provide for our children’s emotional needs by being exceedingly gentle and simply nice on a regular basis, always being a source of pleasure and never a source of stress. Making children happy creates a positive association with the parent herself, which makes it a pleasure for them to obey more often!

Reduce Requests and Commands

No one likes receiving a barrage of new orders. Children are no different. They resent being told what to do all the time. Reduce the less important requests, such as “Stop shouting,” or “Pick that up, now,” and they will be more likely to comply with the fewer remaining commands. By cutting out only a few requests and demands, you can bring your child into his or her comfort zone. Eliminate minor requests that aren’t so important and save your requests for more important items, such as getting ready for school or going to bed. You'd be amazed that usually by just cutting out 10 percent of the commands we give, the child will become much more agreeable and likely to obey the remaining 90 percent. For a detailed discussion of this concept, click here.

Allow Your Child to Help Make Decisions

Give your child options. This gives him or her a feeling of importance and respect. For example, let him or her decide the order of the morning routine or which way to drive to the mall. Children thrive on self-determination and autonomy (as may be appropriate for their age). Choice allows them to spread out and flex their muscles a little bit, to try out new things and to feel in control. It empowers them. On the other hand, a lack of autonomy can cause a host of emotional disorders, including depression. Our children need to practice making decisions as much as possible while they are still young, and this will make them much more likely to follow directions. For more information on decision making for kids, click here.

How To Get My Child To Obey: Ask Nicely!

Ask children nicely to do things! It’s amazing how many parents bark orders and demands at their children. Children, just like adults, respond to being asked nicely. Ask in a soft, sing-song voice, “Could you please wash your hands?” 

Acknowledge Resistance

If resistance to a particular request has built up and there is a power struggle, give up the request if possible and allow your child to win the battle for the time being. If you continue to pressure your child or make demands, resentment can build. Instead, let time pass to allow resentment and resistance to dissipate and then gently renew the request. Sometimes, you need to lose the battle in order to win the war.

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Have Reasonable Expectations

Don’t expect that your child will drop a pleasurable activity immediately in order to comply with your request. I recommend parents expect they will need to ask their kids to do things several times before they follow instructions. Children don’t have the maturity and discipline to jump up and do things the first time. Be patient as children should not be rushed. Sometimes requests might have to be made as many as ten times, but don’t be discouraged. Don’t shout or get angry or irritable; it unfortunately can cause your child to lose respect for you. Show empathy for what your child is feeling right now. For example, “I’m really glad you’re having such a good time playing that game and I see you want to continue, but it’s time to take a bath now.” When your child sees that you understand them, it makes it easier to comply with your instructions.

Describe the Problem

Instead of giving orders, describe the situation. Instead of saying, "Pick that up!" say, "I see a sweater on the floor" and the child understands herself what needs to be done without feeling bossed. Instead of ordering, "Wash your hands!" say "I seen a boy with dirty hands, the soap is over there." and you'll be surprised to see him wash on his own. Instead of criticizing and commanding, "What a mess you made, clean it up now!" describe, "I see orange peels on the couch." Describing is a very polite, subtle form of communication. It works like a charm and should be used always.

Reduce Stress

Reduce stress in the home, such as expressions of anxiety, yelling and marital conflict. This helps your child feel more secure, happy and manageable, since increased happiness and security always results in improved behavior.

Don’t Favor One Child Over Another

It’s amazing how sensitive children are to the differences in how they are treated by their parents. Try to fulfill everyone’s needs in a generous fashion which will prevent sibling rivalry. This will make them less irritable and rebellious and more likely to comply with your requests. For great information on resolving sibling rivalry, click here.

Work on the Parent-Child Relationship

This is the conduit for all good things you have to give to your child. Our relationship with our children improves if we are a source of pleasure for them. Ask yourself “How can I make my child happy today?” This will create a positive association with you, the parent, and will give him or her the strength to comply with requests.

For more information on parenting and addressing challenges with your child, I invite you to explore the rest of my interesting blog, the specialty pages on this website, or download one of my informative free reports for parents.

If you would like more guidance on how to get my child to obey, from a child psychotherapist in lower Manhattan,

you may call me at 646-681-1707 for a free 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!

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