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Parenting Tip: What to Do When Talking Fails You

By J. Christopher McGinnis, Ph.D., BCBA-D​

Have you ever asked your child, in complete frustration and ​desperation, "How many times do I have to explain this?"

The problem is likely not a lack of motivation on the part of your child or a problem with his or her brain.

Consider this:  Studies estimate that adults can recall something they've just been told for only up to 12 seconds, with no distractions. However, that's adults. How about children? For them, 3-year-olds lose recall within one to two seconds, and 6-year-olds lose recall within three to five seconds.

This is why you must explain yourself over and over to children. Whatever you tell them is lost within seconds! Recall is even worse when they're not interested in what you're saying to them.

So what do parents do when "talking to teach" doesn't work?

An alternative and more effective approach to teaching lots of things is Behavioral Skills Training (BST), which involves the activities of "Showing/Describing," "Rehearsing" and "Reinforcing."

We call this the "fire drill intervention." It's kind of like how we learned as kids to participate successfully in fire drills. First, there was an explanation with illustrations. Then we rehearsed often when the fire alarm sounded. Finally, when we did it right, the teacher and principal told us how proud they were of how well we did.

This approach to teaching us fire safety was not about just listening to a lecture; it was about direct participation and rehearsal (successful motor movement trials), and being praised (reinforcement) for completing the task. If there ever was a real fire, we were ready!

This may seem like a lot to ask of parents. But in reality, each BST "lesson" for a specific problem or situation may take no more than a few minutes, with rich payoffs down the road.

Here's just one example how BST can work for you. Let's say getting your four children into the car is always a loud, disorganized, 15-minute hassle where each child jockeys for the perfect seat (of course, they all want the same one). You can make a mental note that BST is needed once you've returned home and a few hours have passed. Then place six kitchen chairs in three rows of two to simulate the interior of your SUV, and explain to the kids that they're going to practice a new way to get in the vehicle. Write up some rules together and make it fun. Then show them how to enter the vehicle the way you want them to, and have them rehearse the whole process a few times until you're satisfied. The next stop is your actual vehicle in the driveway, where the kids can practice a few more times in a real setting. To make it even more interesting, time them as they practice and challenge them to improve on their previous record. Most importantly, praise your kids' efforts and success, and give rewards in the form of extra privileges.

BST can be used in just about any situation. And regardless of the lesson or situation you are working on, remember that all of this teaching, demonstrating and practicing is being done at a time when no one is upset or in a hurry. You are now being proactive, not emotionally reactive. You are now being an effective teacher.

The result will be that your children know what you want them to do and you may never have to explain it again! The "memory" of the lesson will be housed where things like knowing how to ride a bike are stored, not in that "short-term" place where the phone number you just heard for the first time came and went within seconds.​