Dr Emma Micallef-Konewko – Clinical Psychologist and mother of two daughters (Ella, aged 9 months and Andrea, born asleep)

The language we use, and the ways in which we use it, when talking to our children can help to shape the behaviour displayed. Outlined below are some suggestions of ways as parents we can better help our children learn to cooperate by using clear language and balancing instructions with requests.

  • Make requests positive and polite – Like all of us, children, understandably, are more likely to follow requests that are put to them in a positive and polite manner. It is also very important to praise children for complying with your requests.

  • Be realistic in terms of your expectations – Sometimes difficult behaviour happens because children can’t do what you expect. Make sure that the requests you are making are appropriate for your child’s developmental stage and capabilities. If your child has only just learned to talk or has additional needs, they might not always reply or understand what you ae telling them. It can help to show them how to do what you are asking them to do. You can also give examples of what you want them to do or ask them to copy you as you do it together.
  • Give children one request at a time – Giving many requests at the same time might increase the chances that your child will forget one of these, leaving both you and your child feeling disappointed. Increase their chances of succeeding by giving one request at a time. 

  • Keep it short and sweet – Whilst lengthy explanations about what children do wrong may make us as parents feel better it is unlikely that children will take all what is said onboard, especially if they are not in the best of moods.
  • Give children choices wherever possible – Choices can be as minor as “Do you want to wear this blue T-shirt or the red one?”. Offering choices helps to foster a collaborative spirit between you and your child, gives you an opportunity to help your child feel empowered and also helps to reduce feelings of frustration when you must say no. 

  • Tell your child what you want them to do, not what you don’t want them to do – Try to avoid the temptation of saying things like “Don’t fight with your sister.”  Try giving instructions telling your children what you would like them to do.  So instead of using the word “don’t”, try saying “Play nicely with your sister.”

  • Avoid using the word ‘No’ – Telling your child “no” is one of the easiest forms of discipline, but it is not always the most effective. The word “no” immediately instigates a power struggle. Using the word “no” can also often desensitise a child to its meaning, so it is best to try to save this for situations instead.
  • Give children ample time to comply – Hold in mind that it may take younger children longer to process your requests. Try to remain patient and be ready to offer reminders and warnings.

  • Support your partner’s request – Team work and having a unified front make expectations clear and requests less confusing for children.
  • Encourage and describe children’s expressions of emotion – Describe your child’s feelings for them (e.g., being excited, frustrated, curious, calm). With toddlers and young children, it is better to do this rather than ask them what they are feeling as they are unlikely to have the words to tell you. Also, praise your child’s self-regulation skills such as trying to stay calm, trying again and using their words (rather than behaviours such as hitting, kicking etc.) to express frustration. For example, you might use phrases such as, “That is frustrating, and you are staying calm and trying to do it again”. This will help to increase what are referred to as your child’s emotional literacy skills.

  • And most importantly…. Give praise, often! – Look out for any possible opportunities to tell children when they are doing things well (e.g. sharing, helping, taking turns, being polite).  Aside from boosting their self-esteem, it will help strengthen the emotional bond between you and your child.  In the long run, it will help your children feel that you are emotionally invested in them which will increase the probability that they will listen to you when you really need them to (e.g. when giving important instructions or when you may need to correct them).

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