Aha! Parenting Blog

Practical solutions for real parenting problems

When Kids Simply Won't Cooperate

"What if you do all that, and she still won't brush her teeth? Give up for the night?"

In my post How Can You Set Limits If You Don't Use Threats to Enforce Them? we explored how to deal with the normal resistance that all kids feel from time to time. We used brushing teeth as our example, because most parents have problems with this habit in the early years. Why, after all, would any child want to brush his teeth? (Believe it or not, I did hear from many parents whose children loved to brush their teeth!)

I suggested that threats and force will ultimately create more resistance, because force always creates push-back. After all, how would you feel if someone sat on you, pried open your mouth, forced in a toothbrush and scrubbed? Sure, you might begin to acquiesce. But I'm betting you'd be pushing back in other ways. Force creates power struggles.

I suggested that parents instead:

  • Stay calm.
  • Try to see the child's viewpoint, and empathize.
  • Sidestep the power struggle. You don't have to attend every power struggle to which you're invited!
  • Invite cooperation through wish fulfillment and play.
  • Empower your child with choices and by looking together for win/win solutions.

I was deluged with responses from parents asking what to do when all that fails and the child still refuses to cooperate. Sometimes we can be patient, empathic and creative, and our child still doesn't cooperate with us. Shocking, I know. :-)  What then?

These are the situations that test us as parents. Even those of us who are committed to seeing our child's perspective can end up pulling out the biggest threats we can think of. Even parenting expert Wendy Mogel describes how she threatened to leave her young daughter outside in the dark at night until she was willing to brush. (I'm sorry to say that she doesn't describe this as an act of desperation, but as something you might want to try.) Naturally, it worked. Abandonment is the trump card in parenting, because kids are programmed to fear death when parents leave them alone and unprotected. 

There are times when we might decide that force is warranted.  For instance, most parents have forced a resistant child into a car seat. So I'm not saying that you won't, at times, decide that you need to use force. The key to is to keep those times to a minimum, because every time we use force, we're creating push-back later. So if you're doing this daily, it's a signal that you need to rethink the situation.

Or, conversely, we might decide to back off our limit, just this once. "Oh, my! I just realized that tonight is SPECIAL FREE PASS night! It only comes once a year! That means kids get a free pass for one thing. So you could NOT brush your teeth, just for tonight. But are you sure that's how you want to use it?  Instead, you could get one extra story at bedtime. Or you could save it for some other night and use it for not brushing.....Do you just want to save it? I will give you a certificate you can keep and use whenever you want." (Yes, I have seen this work like magic. Kids love knowing they have the certificate and every night they get to choose whether to brush. They so value the certificate that they want to keep it -- so they always choose to brush!)

But here's the thing. By the time we're forcing our child, or fudging our own rules to back off the power struggle and save face for everyone, it's too late. It's like when you ignore the flashing red light on your car's dashboard and the engine seizes up. You're in the breakdown lane, out of options. So we need to heed that red flag, and do more preventive maintenance so we stay out of the breakdown lane in the future!

Here's what I mean. Children are not, by nature, uncooperative, even when they don't agree with our agenda. Children WANT to succeed at what we ask, because the connection with us is the most important thing in their lives-- it ensures their survival. Of course, the other most important thing in their lives is their own growth and integrity. They're designed by nature to resist force, but also to learn, to grow, to master the tasks life sets before them. That includes tasks that are scary, like riding a bike, or take hard work, like learning to read, or aren't particularly pleasant, like brushing their teeth. They face those scary, hard, unpleasant tasks because they trust us. They know we wouldn't ask without a good reason. They know we'll keep them safe. They're willing to cooperate with us, because they know we have their best interests at heart.

Why, then, are there times when they just won't cooperate, or intentionally misbehave?

Big feelings and unmet needs. 

For instance, all children need to feel a sense of healthy power, that they have some ability to control their lives.  If that need isn't met in healthy ways, it comes out in rebellion, resistance, or pushing their little sister around.

Or sometimes kids act out because they lose their connection with us. Not because we've done anything wrong as parents. Because they go to school or day care and when they get home we're too busy moving them through the schedule to reconnect. 

Or sometimes it's because the child has some big feelings that are making them feel anxious. Like most of us, they push those feelings down. Unless something triggers them -- a sibling, a disappointment -- they may hold it together, although they're likely to be a bit rigid and demanding. But there's a cost to holding feelings down. When they disconnect from their negative emotions, they disconnect from their positive emotions as well. So they disconnect a bit from us.

Then, when we ask them to do something they don't want to, they balk.  They're not feeling the connection that makes them want to cooperate. So they dig in their heels. Before you know it, you're in the breakdown lane.

That's why most parenting challenges are best solved with prevention, way before you get to the breakdown lane.

  • When your default setting is to empathize and see things from his point of view, the child is reassured that you're on his side and WANTS to cooperate.
  • When the child get a daily chance to laugh with you, she vents those anxious feelings, and the laughter releases bonding hormones that help her reconnect with you.
  • When you spend daily special time pouring your love into him, he WANTS to try to master what you ask of him.
  • And when none of this is enough because the child really needs to cry, and you support her through a meltdown, she works through those tears and fears, so she's more relaxed and cooperative for the rest of the day.

That's why 5 Preventive Maintenance Habits to Keep Your Child Out of the Breakdown Lane is one of my most popular posts. Deepening your connection with your child and helping him with emotions is what gives you influence with your child, so you don't find yourself reaching for threats and force. 

So next time you try everything you can think of and your child still balks, take it as a red flag to do more preventive maintenance. Sure, it's a lot of work. But you're modeling self-discipline and teaching cooperation, which are arguably bigger lessons. And it's a lot more fun than the breakdown lane!

You might even find that your child is willing to brush her teeth.



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