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As all parents, we are familiar with our children once they begin to speak to challenge our authority as they attempt to become separate and independent from us, which is a healthy and natural process. I have never met a parent however, who enjoys when their child does not listen or follow directions even if they know this is a normal and expected part of both childhood and adolescence. Typically, a parent feels “disrespected” or “insulted” and either becomes angry or hurt when their children “act up” or “out”, especially in public places, but even at home. In fact, many children normally are respectful, listen, or follow directions everywhere but home, which again supports the normality of a child wishing to be “bigger” and “stronger” in search of more self-confidence and autonomy. Clearly, strong willed children (those with a strong in-born temperament) are more challenging than the more quiet child, and parents with such “spirited” child have to exert even more patience than the parents with easier going children.
Aside from desiring independence as a cause of poor listening or direction skills, also involves what the child is being asked to do or complete. Most children have excellent listening and directional skills if the task is “fun” or to their liking even at home. The greater the lack of desire towards the situation, the greater the lack of compliance for poor listening and poor direction following are the outward manifestations of “frustration and anger”, unless the particular child has a true form of an Attention Deficit Disorder, which is often mistaken for normal developmental imperfections. I have parents tell me every day that when their children are engaged in a video game or an activity they like and is stimulating, attention and direction following is almost perfect. On the other hand, having to do homework, take a shower, take out the trash, are common examples of when many children will “tune out”, “act out”, or just not comply. Very rarely however, the child is consciously aware they are angry and unhappy and just “act out their feelings”.
As in other topics I have written about parents “needing to know how to read their child’s behavior”, this topic is no exception. The response of the parent to a child who is not listening or following directions, will help with the outcome of the particular condition. The two extremes – a parent who just gets angry and punishes or the parent who throws his or her arms up and does not insist upon compliance, both lose as well as the child. The parent who is able to connect to their child’s dismay, empathize with them, but then hold them responsible, a position we call “benevolent firmness”, are the ones who produce the children who know what they feel, but not take it out on themselves or others (as much). The true task of any “good” parent is to be able to try to put themselves in their child’s shoes and think what it must be like for them – in other words – try to think like 8 year old having to eat rather than play – this attunement of feeling brings the parent closer to their child and helps with attachment and compliance. Sure, the child will still try to differentiate and be stubborn at times, but not as much if they have a parent who is attuned to them and can help them manage their feelings.
This process of empathy, identification of feelings, calm use of words, and then follow through with the demand at hand needs to start early for good habits to develop. To assist in the child’s wish for some independence however, the optimal parent allows their child to have some choice over non mandatory types of activities to help them feel as though they are indeed an individual, but still needs to follow certain parental standards which are clearly in the child’s best interest. Failure to both insist on accountability and also allow for some free choice, can lead to many childhood and adolescent psychological problems which are symptoms for underlying conflicts having to do with inner conflicts that have become too intense for the child or adolescent to manage. It is often at these times, that I end up consulting with parents and tracing the roots to earlier years of developmental and psychological struggles.
The good news, is that it is never too late to make changes in how a parent relates to their child. Children, like parents, can change and sometimes the parent has to change before their child and be better listener to their child’s behavior as an impression of what is going on in their minds.
1. poor listening/following directions is a normal part of toddlerhood.
2. parents commonly feel disrespected or hurt when this happens.
3. strong-willed children are the most challenging in these areas.
4. poor listening or direction following is usually a sign of anger about the task.
5. parents need to know how to “read” their child’s behavior for the feeling inside.
6. “benevolent firmness” is the best approach to such conditions.
7. The combination of required tasks mixed with some choice works best to help a child reach normal independence.
Dr. Keith Kanner is a Licensed and Board Certified Clinical Child, Adolescent, and Adult Psychologist and Psychoanalyst. In addition to running a full-time private practice, he is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine at the University of California San Diego where he teaches both human development and also trains medical students how to better understand and relate to their patients. He also serves as the Director of Clinical Counseling for La Jolla Country Day School in La Jolla, California, and is a Clinical Professor at The San Diego Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. Dr. Kanner also sits on the National Board of Directors for Kids Korps USA, which is the largest organization in the country that teaches children and adolescents the importance of volunteering to help the community at large. As a father of three children, he is also a dedicated baseball, football, and soccer coach.
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