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The Parent-Child Dynamic of Listening and Follow Through from a Behavioral Perspective

By Kara Miller, MEd, BCBA, LBA

I recently asked fellow parents to describe their versions of what is considered a “rite of passage” in parenting. The responses invoked laughter and a sense of community as we all do our best navigating this uncharted territory known as “parenthood.” Finding humor in these parenting challenges can help us escape from some of the more frustrating aspects of this journey we are all on. I believe all parents can agree that one of the most challenging aspects of parenting is getting our children to listen to us and to follow through on what is being asked of them. Is it a rite of passage for us to tire of our own voices while constantly repeating ourselves? Is it a rite of passage to be constantly ignored? Is it a rite of passage to be exasperated by getting our children to follow through? The answer is probably, “Yes, it is a rite of passage,” but the good news is that there is still hope.

In many ways, the pandemic has changed our behaviors. Kids were expected to attend school virtually. Parents were expected to work full-time at home. Childcare was non-existent which left parents who worked full-time to also parent full-time simultaneously. This inevitably led many of us to burn out and led to situations between parent and child such as: (1) You ask your child to put their plate in the sink and they start whining about it. You don’t have the energy to listen to their whining, so you throw your hands up and bring the plate to the sink yourself. (2) You ask your child to put their plate in the sink and they ignore you. You repeat yourself numerous times while getting increasingly frustrated until you get a response. (3) You ask your child to put their plate in the sink and they say, “No, thank you,” and you move on from the request. You don’t feel like getting into an argument. The plate remains where it is. Feel free to replace the “plate” reference with any request relevant in your own home. The sentiment is universal.

What each of these scenarios have in common is that they are reinforcing your child’s behavior of ignoring your requests and not following through on what they’ve been asked to do. This leads to a vicious cycle perpetuating the same behavior you wish to reduce. In the first example, the child’s whining is rewarded because they do not have to bring their plate to the sink. This leads to an increase in the frequency of whining to get out of future requests. In the second example, the child is rewarded for ignoring you by delaying the task at hand. Repetition by the parent is then reinforced and will continue to be the household norm. In the third example, similar to the first, the child is not required to follow through on the request which reinforces future instances of refusal.

As an already exhausted parent, pursuing that follow through can feel like a daunting task. Sometimes it’s easier to do it ourselves. These scenarios not only reinforce our children’s behaviors, but they also reinforce our own avoidance behaviors. We want to avoid hearing our child whining, so we do the task ourselves. We want to avoid repeating ourselves 100 times, so we stop asking. We want to avoid a fight, so we drop it. During the pandemic, many of us (both children and parents) had nothing left to give. Thankfully, we can see the light again. Society has essentially bounced back and we have the return of support in our parenting villages. We can once again start investing our energy into nurturing ourselves and our family dynamics.

If you are interested in learning science based approaches on how to improve the parent-child relationship related to listening and follow through, please consider attending my parent training "Stop Nagging and Get Your Kids to Listen" on Wednesday, April 19 at 7pm at the Parent Resource Center. If you would like to register for this event click here.

About the Author:

Kara Miller is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and Licensed Behavior Analyst (LBA). She received a Bachelor of Science in Health Behavior Science from the University of Delaware and a Master of Education in Special Education with a Graduate Certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis from George Mason University. Kara has a decade of experience working with individuals with behavioral challenges from early intervention through adulthood. Kara has worked in a variety of settings including in-home services, adaptive school programs, community based services, and at home with her own three children. Kara is a proud member of the Port Washington community.

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