5 Ways To Get Your Distracted, Stubborn Kids To Do What You Ask

Photo: iStock
Parenting Tip You Need To Make Your Kids Listen To You

When you're talking to your kids, do you feel like a broken record, saying the same thing over and over again? You give them direction: to put on their shoes, get their backpacks ready, put their pajamas on, feed the dog. They say "OK" but then ... do nothing. It's like talking to a wall. And it's maddening! ​

So, what keeps kids from following directions?

First, we assume they heard us in the first place. More so, we also wrongly assume our kids registered the information, processed it, absorbed it, agreed to comply with it, and are now about to take action. 

When we say, "Unpack your lunch box" and our kids reply, "Yes m’am" (I’m a southerner — we work hard on that one!), we somehow believe our kids are right there with us, eager to please. But, that's not what’s really happening.

Your son's thinking about the video game he’s been waiting all day to play, or your daughter's chomping at the bit to jump on group chat with her friends. Or, maybe she’s thinking about a snack and he’s thinking about getting his homework done.

Whatever it is, your kids dutifully respond to you because they’ve learned to do so automatically. But more than likely, they never processed what you actually asked. In one ear and out the other, with a "Yes m'am" in between for good manners.

And, be honest, you do the exact same thing to your kids! 

Think about it. How often do you reply to your children (or anyone, really) automatically, only to shake your head a moment later and say, "Wait a minute, can you say that again?" As adults, we feel confident asking someone to repeat something because we feel responsible to make sure we’re fulfilling our obligations.

But kids? Well, they may feel responsible, but there are SO many obligations, and sometimes, they're too occupied to make sure they have all the bases covered. Besides, if it’s really important, you’re going to remind them again, anyway, right

Here's a truth for you, parents — kids and teenagers are the most distracted people on Earth.

And that goes for ALL of them, especially in this digital age of distraction. It’s part of their wiring. Their brains are a work in progress. Your kids' minds are working overtime on matters that have nothing to do with the direction you just gave (thus why it quickly slid right out of her head).

Unfortunately, what we do (as parents) in those moments is wrongly assume our kids just don’t respect us. But, that's NOT true.

For most kids under the age of 13, there is at least a part of them motivated to please you. They want to do well, feel successful and make you or their teacher proud. So 9 times out of 10, they really did forget to unpack their lunchbox — not because they're trying to tick you off and be disrespectful.

Now, if your child is 14 or older, the need to please begins to take a back seat to their need to self-express — and that’s actually a good thing. Instead of battling with them over wet towels on the floor (which you've told them to pick up for the umpteenth time), it’s time to help your kids find their OWN motivation for hanging up the towels. That’s the ticket to independence — and ultimately to freedom, yours and theirs!

So, start asking yourself, "What’s in it for him (or her)?" And if you can’t come up with anything, that's a clue as to why the task is not getting done.

So how DO you get your kid to listen and follow your directions?

1. Don’t take it personally. It’s reasonable to expect that kids won’t follow all of your directions the first time, every time. This is a family, not an army barracks.

2. Get your kids' attention before you give them a direction. Touch their shoulder, call their name, or look them in the eye.

3. Mix up the delivery. Try humor, silliness, singing. See number two: get their attention, even if it’s a bit embarrassing. Doing something fun and unexpected helps kids snap back into the moment and actually hear you (even if they're more embarrassed by your antics than you are.) 

4. Ask for acknowledgment that they’ve processed the request. Ask them to confirm more specifically: "Yes m’am, I’ll take out the trash before dinner."

5. Help them find THEIR motivation. The best question parents can ask themselves is: "What’s in it for my child?" Understanding your child's world through that perspective is a magic ticket for parents.

As parents, we tend to make REALLY BIG assumptions that actually get in the way of helping our kids learn to follow our directions. The truth is — when our kids don’t follow directions, it’s not really the next act in an ongoing disrespectful tragedy. It’s really more of a comedy — part human nature colliding with part human brain.

When you can accept that, and roll with it — the positive results will surprise you. No more sounding like a broken record!

Elaine Taylor-Klaus and Diane Dempster, founders of, teach/write about practical strategies to parents of “complex” kids with ADHD and related challenges. To help your kids find the motivation to get anything done, download their free parent’s guide, The Parent’s Guide to Motivating Your Complex Child.