How to help young children listen and follow instructions

Claudia and William were at the grocery store with their 4-year-old son, Billy, who was sitting in the cart. Claudia and William stopped to discuss an item and Billy let out a loud scream. Claudia quickly turned around and said, “Billy, don’t do that,” then returned to her discussion with William. After 10 seconds, Billy screamed again. This time Claudia turned and gave Billy a hard stare and said, “Stop.” A few seconds passed and Billy screamed again. This time Claudia didn’t even look up and continued the conversation with her husband. Even though she was trying to ignore her son’s outburst, she wondered why Billy kept screaming and didn’t listen to her.

Many parents struggle with children who don’t listen to instructions or, even more problematically, purposefully do what they are told not to do. This can be very stressful for the family. The situation that Claudia and William found themselves in is common but it doesn’t have to be that way.

The key to making young children listen and follow directions is to be consistent. In the example above, Claudia responded three different ways to Billy’s screams while William ignored him. This meant that each time Billy misbehaved he was getting different messages from his parents. Claudia slowly decreased her reaction to Billy as he continued to defy her instructions and William acted as if he didn’t hear the screams. These changing and conflicting parental behaviors ended with both parents ignoring their son’s behaviors in the end. By not being consistent and unified in their response to Billy’s screams, Claudia and William were unintentionally provoking Billy to do it again. Let me explain how and why this happens.

Young children are in the process of trying to figure out how the world works. Their developing minds mix reality with fantasy as they learn to understand the consequences to their actions versus how they want things to turn out. In order to learn how things work, they must experience action-consequence many times over to fully understand what will happen. When Billy’s parents changed their response or ignored his misbehavior, Billy wasn’t able to learn that screaming in a store is inappropriate and there is a consequence (his parents’ correction and sternness) because he wasn’t given a consistent response. So, Billy kept screaming to see what would happen. He was doing exactly what little children are supposed to do – explore! It was Claudia and William who needed to change. If they decided together how to respond to Billy’s screams and both parents reacted in the same way, Billy would soon learn that screaming caused his parents’ to become serious and correct his behavior. After a few attempts and receiving the same response, Billy would stop screaming because it would make him feel uncomfortable under his parent’s negative expression and words of correction.

Obviously the early you start with providing a consistent message to young children, the easier it is for them to learn to listen and follow directions. Children as young as 12 months are ready to start learning to listen, so parents should start after the 1st birthday. Children who are raised with conflicting or inconsistent responses to their behavior never fully understand how their actions have consequences.  This means that they will push and test boundaries throughout childhood and adolescence, which can be very troubling for families. Therefore it is a good idea to start early, make a plan on how to respond to misbehaving children, and try as often as possible to give the same response. Parents who make the time and effort to do this from an early age will raise children to listen and follow directions effortlessly because they will have grown up with this understanding of the world. Knowing how actions have consequences helps children succeed in school, friendships, relationships, and family life. Try being more consistent in your family and see how quickly your little one learns to listen and follow directions.


Dittman, C., Farruggia, S., Keown, L. & Sanders, M. (2016). Dealing with disobedience: An evaluation of a brief parenting intervention for young children showing noncompliant behavior problems. Child Psychiatry & Human Development 47 (1), 102-112.

Kalb, L. & Loeber, R. (2003). Child disobedience and noncompliance: A review. Pediatrics 111(3), doi: 10.1542/peds.111.3.641

Morawska, A., Haslam, D., Milne, D., & Sanders, M. (2011). Evaluation of a brief parenting discussion group for parents of young children. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics 32(2), 136-145.


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