Simple Strategies for Helping your Child Listen and Follow Through

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

When your child has ADHD, getting them to follow through on seemingly simple requests can be frustrating and challenging. You’ve probably wondered more than a few times how your child is able to tune you out so effectively, to the point where they seem to not hear you when you ask them to do something. Or maybe you struggle to understand what exactly happens when you ask them to go put on their shoes and socks only to have them come back 20 minutes later with a sock on one foot and no shoes in sight.  

Moments like these are par for the course when you have a child with ADHD, but there are things you can do to make these moments less frequent. The way that you give your child instructions can have a huge impact on their ability to follow through. And, when you pair these effective instructions with praise for a job well done, you’ll see big improvements and less frustration all around.   

Five Strategies for Giving Effective Instructions: 

  1. Always get your child’s attention first. Children with ADHD often have trouble shifting their attention from one thing to the next. So, don’t assume that your child is paying attention when you speak. Make sure you are in the same room as your child, then say your child’s name, ask them to look at you, or put your hand on their shoulder. All of these steps will help ensure that they are ready to take in what you have to say. 
  2. Give only one or two instructions at a time. Most children with ADHD can only absorb one or two instructions at a time, maybe three if they are a bit older. If you chain too many instructions together, you will exceed what their mind can process and will compromise their ability to follow through on anything that you’ve asked them to do. 
  3. Tell your child what to do instead of what not to do. Make it easier for your child to follow through by telling them exactly what it is that you want them to do, and don’t leave it up to their interpretation. For example, if your child is running down the stairs and you tell them to stop running, they can choose to slide down the bannister and still comply with your instructions. Instead, be clear and direct and tell them to walk down the stairs. 
  4. Avoid “asking” your child do to something. It feels very natural for us to ask someone to do something in the form of a question, such as, “Would you get me a cup of coffee?”  We communicate with other adults like this all the time and in many instances, it would be rude not to say it more like, “Get me a cup of coffee!” But, when you’re giving instructions to your child with ADHD, the same rules don’t necessarily apply. When you phrase an instruction as a question, your child can take you literally and simply say no. “Would you clean up your toys?” can result in this response, “No, I’m busy.” If you instead say, “Please stop playing and clean up your toys now,” you’re not asking your child for a favor. You’re telling them what you need them to do, and they will be more likely to follow though. 
  5. Give your child time to react. It takes many children with ADHD a little bit longer to process information than you might think, and in general, children process information more slowly than adults. So, give your child at least 5-10 seconds to follow through before you repeat the instruction or start to feel ignored.  

When you follow these five simple steps consistently, you’ll be surprised by how much better your child follows through when you ask them to do something. In fact, they may even show up with socks and shoes on both feet the next time you ask! 


Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


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