How Can I Get My Daughter to Listen to Me?

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Reader’s Question

How do I get my 9-year-old daughter to listen to me? It’s not the everyday thing most parents go through. My daughter just doesn’t listen unless it means something for her. It starts in the morning (get dressed, brush your teeth, pack your school bag) and then again as soon as she gets off the bus (put your bag away, do your homework, help set the table, get ready for bed, brush your teeth). It’s never-ending.

I have tried the ‘pick your battles’ thing but then nothing gets done. I have talked to her many times. I’ve explained she’s old enough to be taking on daily chores without being yelled at. I’ve said that it hurts me to no end that she shows no respect for my feelings, and that we need to get over this. I ask her if she understands my feelings and the need for her to start respecting me as a parent and that things just need to be done without the yelling that always goes along with it and she says “yes.”

I should mention she lost her dad to cancer over a year ago, but her defiance has always been there. It is only the two of us at home. I’m really starting to lose it with her more and more often. Please, any suggestion will be greatly appreciated.

Psychologist’s Reply

When it comes right down to it, very few of us do things unless there is something in it for us. This is at the heart of behavioral theory: people and other living things act in ways that either earn rewards (reinforcement) or prevent punishment. This is where I’d suggest you start.

As parents, we want our children to have everything that their little hearts desire, so it often is tough to determine the difference between rights and privileges. This would be especially difficult when your child has lost a parent and you’re probably trying to make up for his absence. However, this distinction is vital. Rights are something that children should get regardless of their behavior, things like love, affection, safety, food, and shelter. In contrast, privileges are things children earn through good behavior. These can include watching television, money, special trips, playing with friends, or time spent doing things with mom (e.g., cooking, reading, playing games). Once you decide what your daughter likes to do the most, then you can set up a chore chart.

Chore charts are great tools. They can be as simple as a chart drawn on paper or as elaborate as a chart with magnets. There are even examples of chore charts online. The chart should contain the list of chores and places to check off when she does them every day. Then you can set up short-term rewards and long-term rewards. For example, at my house, each “check” earns 5 minutes of time for a favorite activity. Having a good week earns an additional 10 minutes of favorite activity time. The key here is getting her to participate in checking off her chores (with a checkmark, smiley face or sticker — whatever she is most interested in using) and figuring out what’s in it for her. The chart is a win-win as well because, not only does she complete her chores without you yelling at her, but she also learns how to work toward a goal. This is an essential skill necessary for success in the larger world.

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Respect is a tricky thing because it isn’t really something you can demand. I also don’t think that kids respond well to it as an abstract concept. While I believe that most kids respect their parents as caregivers and don’t want to hurt their feelings, many kids do not respect their parents as disciplinarians. Respect is earned, not given, and kids need to know that parents are serious about helping them learn how to contribute to the household and behave appropriately. This means using appropriate and consistent disciplinary methods (remember that discipline comes from the Latin root to teach). Once kids realize that their parents mean what they say and will instill consequences for poor behavior, then they start respecting them more in that area. Thus, in addition to chore charts in which kids earn privileges, parents must ensure that kids lose privileges if poor behavioral choices are made. This double-whammy of behavioral reinforcement will help guide behavior in the way you want it to go.

I also think it is important to address what other things may be going on for your daughter. Losing a parent to cancer is a gigantic loss and she is probably still grieving. I don’t know what kind of grief work you two have been able to do but it seems like it couldn’t hurt to talk about it. She may need to work through her feelings about his death and could even have fears about losing you as well. Whatever the case, spending time with kids listening to them talk about their day and their feelings is always time well spent. Oftentimes that is the biggest reward a parent has to give.

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