My sons won’t listen to me

How do I get my 5 and 3 year olds to listen to me better? They are always telling me no, fighting with each other and having melt downs. I have a 13 year old daugher and she has always listens when I tell her to do something, or not to do something. I want healthier relationships with my sons.

Thanks for the question – it is one that parents often ask. Here are a few things to consider:

First, your daughter may have some traits of an only child. She is 8 years older than her siblings and at about five years older than sibs, children tend to operate like “onlies.” In this case it means she is more compliant and more focused on you.

There are clear steps you can take to decrease your sons’ conflict –

1. Make sure that none of the adults in your family are fighting with each other or with the children. Fighting consists of raising voices, criticizing, arguing, threatening or hitting. If any adults are modeling this behavior, you won’t be able to influence the children to change until the adults do so.

2. Ignore your sons’ arguing and fighting to the best of your ability unless it is dangerous. Since your sons are probably used to getting attention for this negative behavior, it may get worse when you start ignoring the fighting. Within a short time, however, most parents report that the fighting decreases and often dramatically. Keep in mind that ignoring is completely ignoring – that means avoid angry glances, sighing, hands on hips in frustrated gestures and any other actions. Ignoring also doesn’t mean ignore most of the time and then nag or yell once in a while. That actually reinforces the behavior more. Remind yourself that fighting with children about fighting really doesn’t make sense!

3. Every time they are getting along (that is simply co-existing without conflict) use effective praise

  • Describe their behavior with specific positive words
  • Express yourself VERY enthusiastically
  • Use a gesture or touch to emphasize your words (high five, thumbs up, hug, etc.)
  • Be close to them when you do all this
  • Vary the gestures and phrases that you use to notice the positive behavior

And remember to do all this EVERY time – when they are sitting in the back of the car using indoor voices, when they are watching a TV show together without   conflict, when they are in the same room using toys – every time you observe the boys together without conflict, become their favorite cheer leader!

4. If they are being dangerous or breaking rules with their conflict (and with 3 and 5 year old boys I would not make safe wrestling against the rules), calmly separate them. Talk like a robot, act disinterested and calmly direct them to take 5 minutes apart. I would also cue them for success by saying: “As soon as you cool down for 5 minutes I am sure you will be able to get along.” Say this whether you believe it or not. Program their brains for the behavior that you want. Parents spend far too much time enthusiastically describing their children’s negative behavior and because children want parent attention more than anything, they will continue to provide negative behavior because they can count on that resulting in parent attention.

5. If at all possible, spend 20 minutes in individual, uninterrupted, enjoyable time with each child for twenty minutes each day – one parent, one child. Put aside your cell phone, laundry and all other tasks. Take this time to be extremely positive and do something that both you and your child enjoy. Focus only on your child during this time and simply enjoy him. If you can’t do it every day, do it every other or as regularly as you can. It works best if it is something that your child can count on and never take it away as a punishment.

Hope this helps. Parents who are able to use this approach consistently report dramatically calmer households. Try it for two or three weeks and please let us know how it goes!

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