We have a relatively large house. Our kids are always in earshot, but not usually in sight. The problem with this is our 4 year-old son doesn't know how to call out for help appropriately. On the one hand, he cries for the tiniest of reasons. However, when he really does need our help, he is bizarrely often completely silent. For example, he will just stand in front of a locked door he needs to enter until we happen to walk by, or if he can't find his shoes he will stand in the middle of his bedroom until we happen to walk by.

The combination of the excessive crying together with the stymied silence creates a boy-who-cried-wolf effect that has so far been annoying but harmless, but has me a little concerned for his potential safety, not to mention making things like potty training very difficult. I try to reinforce what he needs to say to call for us, which he now dutifully recites as soon as I come into view. It's like he doesn't remember we exist if he can't see or hear us at the time, or at least doesn't realize we can hear him. This in spite of the example of his older sister calling for us and getting prompt responses all the time.

Any ideas on what we can try?

3 Answers 3


To teach children how to call for help appropriately, the first thing I would do is share with them the story of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" (which you have already mentioned).

But you want to encourage, not discourage, your child to ask for assistance.

Getting my kids ready to stay home alone has meant practicing what needs to be done in an emergency or if they just need help. Role-playing has been a big part of their preparation. Learning to call for help has 2 steps. First they must recognize when they need help. Then, they have to communicate that need.

Step 1. Recognize need for help.

This can be done by quizzing, where the child needs to distinguish between scenarios requiring help and those that don't. You could introduce this with a game where you give a scenario that doesn't require help (A) and then make the scenario worse where it requires help (B). Or for older children have them come up with (B).

For example:

  • A. "You are getting a snack in the kitchen."
  • B. "You are getting a snack and can't reach it in the cupboard."

  • A. "You are getting ready for school."

  • B. "You are late for school and can't find your coat!"

  • A. "You are playing outside and fall down. You are all sandy."

  • B. "You are playing outside and fall down. And your knee is bleeding."

Step 2. Communicate need for help.

Now that you have done step 1, you can use these examples as cues (and miscues!) to ask for help.

For example:

  • "You are getting a snack and can't reach it in the cupboard. What do you do?"
  • "How would you call for Dad to help?"

As the children get older the scenarios can get more serious and require action beyond calling for help.

By using miscues along with the times you want your children to call for help, you will continue to foster independence while encouraging them to reach out for assistance.

Also, to get your child to yell (aka using their "outside voice"), you can play hide and seek games like Marco Polo.

  • Javid makes a good point about importance of "consistent long-term one-on-one coaching". When a situation arises, make sure you bring it to the child's attention. Quizzing is an artificial way to address situations that have happened in the past. It's important to deal with events as they occur so that kids Recognize and then Communicate.
    – nGinius
    Commented May 3, 2011 at 13:24
  • 2
    I also find it helpful to elicit the behavior I want from my child even when the moment has already passed. If I see the child needing help but he didn't ask, then I will ask him to call for help, and not help him until he's done so (even though I'm standing right there). It seems that this practice "fake it 'til you make it" seems to work because it gets the child the practice he needs, which is then easier to join to the real situation later. Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 4:05

Based on what you're describing, it sounds very similar to issues I have had with my children. In particular, I have had this issue with my 3yo who is the middle child out of 5. The crying and lack of communication sometimes persists, but we have systematically improved the situation.

I think the key thing is for you to introduce structure. It sounds like you're giving your child too much freedom and responsibility to take care of things on his own, when he is perhaps not ready. This is challenging to recognize, particularly for parents with more than one child, where the older one(s) might be more independent than the younger one(s). It is sometimes hard to mentally separate what each child is capable of doing on their own.

While @nGinius has some good points about quizzing and demonstrating with examples, from my experience, this type of behavior modification strategy on its own is generally of little value (with all due respect). It sounds nice, and it is good to introduce ideas, but in my experience taking the approach of quizzing and demonstrating independence does not generally modify a child (or an adults) actions.

Behavior modification only happens through consistent long-term one-on-one coaching. You have to spend more time with your child, do more hand holding, and give them more structure. Maintain consistency so they know what, where, when, and how to do a given task. Consistency helps them know when they are supposed to mentally shift from one task to the next.

What worked for us is to have more structure and predictability in our house:

  • Try to follow a structured schedule and post your schedule so that your child can see it
  • Give your child notice of events in your schedule. For example, "Son, in five minutes we're going to get our shoes on".
  • Lead your child where they should be. If they're supposed to be tying their shoes, lead them to find there shoes in the location they should always be.
  • Work closely with them to accomplish the activity they are supposed to be doing. If they're supposed to be tying their shoes, sit down and help them get them on. Work with them for weeks, months, or sometimes years until they can do a given task independently.
  • Give them a high five and compliment them for accomplishing each task so well.

Above all value consistency over independence. Sure, your child may know how to tie their shoe on their own, so its easy to say, "Go get your shoes on, you know how to do it on your own". But, they may not have internalized the idea that it is their responsibility or that its time to do it (even though you told them its time). Lead them and sit down with them and coach them through it, even if you know that they know how to do it on their own. Make sure they are doing what they should be doing the way that they should be doing it. Make sure you're supporting them. Independence will come with time, but don't rush it.


Perhaps focusing on how you and your child communicate in closer proximity is a good place to begin practicing this skill. When in sight of your child, do not respond to crying but instead move into his line of sight. Then coach him with questions, or modeling the words you feel he should be saying quietly, until he says them himself. Then respond promptly verbally while repeating/summarizing his request. Saying, "You said you need help!" "I will be happy to help you!" "Thank you for asking me." "I like helping you." Fade cues as his skill increases.

Setting up opportunities in play by hiding objects in sealed containers and cuing him to ask for help will give opportunity to practice. Also, call for him to come help you sometimes will be another fun way to practice this pragmatic language skill.

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