Girl Mum instructions

Do you know someone who talks too much? Have you wondered why your child struggles to complete an instruction you’ve given them? Do you imagine what a peaceful home would look like? Would you like ideas on how to give your child instructions?

Many parents are puzzled why their child has difficulty understanding an instruction. The problem about giving an instruction to a child is that often it is not just one instruction, it’s possibly not two instructions, but it could be three, four, maybe five instructions embedded in the directive that a parent gives their child.

Parents can talk too much, we verbalise a lot of information out loud to process that information and in response, kids tune out.

I’m reminded of the talented cartoonist Gary Larson showing a man giving his dog lots of instructions, yet the dog only hears “blah, blah, blah”. Interactions with our kids can be a bit like this. As parents we also verbalise lots of information to our kids, yet all they hear is “blah blah blah”.

Too Many Instructions

There have been times when many of us have given our child a list of instructions we want them to do. For example, you and your seven year old, Lizzie, have just arrived home from school. Lizzie is tired and hungry. But you have things you want Lizzie to do immediately.

The list in your head, which you verbalise out loud, tells Lizzie to unpack her bag, put her lunchbox near the sink before afternoon tea, homework is at 4pm. You remind her that she was to take her shoes off at the door and you tell her to go out and do it now. She is to wash her hands before she eats, there is no TV till she has eaten, done homework, changed out of her school clothes and packed her bag for tomorrow.

You also inform Lizzie that her bedroom is untidy and she is to clean her room after a snack. Lizzie is then told that as it’s athletics carnival tomorrow, she is to pack her bag tonight with the specific items required for the carnival. So many instructions! It’s exhausting for the child, and it’s draining for the parent to issue such a long list of commands.

You may be lucky if Lizzie hears the first instruction – “Unpack bag.” The rest of the instructions have become ‘noise’ to her and like Larson’s dog, a rolling sea of blah blah blah.

When my kids were younger, there were days of frustration wondering why my child had not done what I requested. The problem was, I gave my child too many requests and he couldn’t process all that information. End result – he went into meltdown. Processing information is hard for many adults when we are given lots to absorb in a short time. It’s even harder for kids.

Think back to your school or uni days when you were required to listen to a teacher or lecturer, absorb information, write notes into your laptop or other device, go home, then study some more. It’s a lot for the brain to grasp. There is only so much the short term memory can retain.

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Emotional Overload

It’s hard for us adults to keep up and not give up when loads of information is presented. It’s even harder for children, particularly when they attend school for over six hours a day, absorbing lots of information in that time, trying to follow school rules, wanting to fit in with the other kids. It’s a big day.

When there’s overload, a child may have a meltdown, arguing with you, throwing an object, crying. Or they may walk away. Children have greater difficulty holding an emotion like anger inside without expressing it outwardly.

So what can you do before your child feels overwhelmed?

1. If you are someone who verbalises out loud, then take a deep breath and consciously decide to wait till later to instruct your child. If you were rushing to collect your child from school or preschool, you may still be in a heightened arousal when arriving home. Be aware of your body, how relaxed or tense you may be.

2. Let them eat and rest before anything else. This will help your child to recover, their brain will be more rested. They will then be more open to receiving instruction. Your well-rested child may also share with you about their day.

3. When giving an instruction, ensure there are few or no distractions at the time, for instance, have the TV off.

4. Be near your child when giving them an instruction, not call out to them from across the room.

5. Get down to your child’s eye level, say their name, then give the instruction. Ask your child to repeat the instruction back to you. If they have difficulty with this, then repeat the instruction. Sometimes it can take a few seconds for a child to process the information before acting on it.

6. Depending on the age of your child, give short instructions. Less is best. A good rule is to use one word for every year of your child’s life. For instance, a three year old, “Put socks on.”

7. Break the instructions down, into bite-sized chunks. Give one instruction at a time. When your child has completed that instruction, give them another instruction, but not overload your child with too many in a short space of time.

8. Be positive in your instruction, such as “Walk beside me”, instead of “Don’t run.”

9. Ensure the instruction is a statement, not a question. Such as “Please put your jacket away”, not “Could you please put your jacket away?” A child may think that the question gives them the option of whether to put their jacket away or not.

10. Use clear instructions, such as “Please unpack your school bag”, instead of “Do your bag.”

Parenting is challenging, it is not an easy task. It is a labour of love to nurture and grow our children into mature, responsible and loving adults. Sometimes we don’t get it right. We need to be aware of our feelings and reactions and try to slow down so that our kids learn to listen and to regulate their emotions.

Share this page with others. These ideas may help a friend or a family member. Contact me if you would like more information or coaching in child behaviour.

Janice WIlliams Counselling


Janice Williams is a Certified Mother-Daughter Relationship Specialist.

Janice offers in-person and online appointments. Online sessions are available across Australia and worldwide.

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