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Tips to help parents when kids refuse to cooperate: how to deal with an oppositional child

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You believe you are a good parent and will do everything to make your child feel happy and protected, yet you doubt yourself sometimes. When your child refuses to cooperate without a reason that you can understand, you may need help. But maybe you just hope for the best, don’t know where to turn to, or are too embarrassed to admit it.

Here’s a few tips to develop a healthy and cooperative relationship with your kids.

Contents

If you ever find yourself in a position what to try and where to turn to, don’t worry. You are not alone. Your situation is not unique. There are many parents in the same boat. There are many easy and straightforward solutions that you can try. In this guide, we offer you possible explanations why your kid is sometimes resistant and disruptive and provide tips how to promote peace in the home.

How kids cooperate – age guide

At various ages, the ability and willingness of children to cooperate vary. Your child must balance his or her wishes and impulses to enjoy autonomy with accepting authority and the expectations of those around them.

While it is common for children to test their boundaries and independence at times, frequent and serious noncompliance is a concern at any age. Such behavioral defiance has the risk of putting the wellbeing of your child and family in danger and developing into a sustained pattern of problems.

Theories of child development

Before we look at how kids cooperate at various ages, it is important for parents to understand the developmental levels, abilities, and needs that children have at different stages.

According to the psychological life stages developed by Erik Erikson, a German American psychoanalyst, in the later 1960s, young people have a different concept and expression of identity, trust, competence, and independence as preschoolers, schoolers, and teenagers.

Similarly, Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist proposed the theory of cognitive development that describes how children learn and interact with the world at different ages.

Preschoolers

Children of preschool age are egocentric, which means that the world around them exists to serve their interests. They have already formed a concept of trust for their parents or caregivers but have an instinctive sense of danger and suspicion of other people, especially strangers.

Preschoolers have started to experience personal control and will test their independence and boundaries. They think and reason in concrete terms instead of abstract and hypothetical. They don’t see things from someone else’s perspective. Every action has a self-centered and direct objective. And preschoolers are unable to delay gratification – when they want something, they want it immediately.

Therefore, they are sensitive to their surroundings. The overall harmony and stability in the home is a foundation to make your child feels secure. Preschoolers may be shaken by discord and arguments in the home. As a result, they can become withdrawn, seek support elsewhere, or try to escape.

The following tips will help you to improve cooperation from a preschooler:

  • create a routine with enough sleep, regular meals, and down-time. A tired, hungry, and bored child is prone to irritability and defiance;
  • focus only on direct engagement with the kid. Interrupt anything else you are busy with and don’t be distracted. Make eye contact with authority if you want to say something;
  • be a good model by showing communication skills like listening, attention, eye contact, and asking questions to clarify;
  • communicate in simple sentences and concepts;
  • get confirmation that the child listened, understands, and will comply. A simple «yes» suffices;
  • «Because I said so…» You don’t always have to explain the motives behind instructions as it sometimes invites unnecessary arguments;
  • there must be consequences for not complying. For example, one warning, followed by a time-out period;
  • avoid repeating the same request over and over again as it weakens your authority;
  • utilize positive parenting techniques appropriate for the preschooler’s developmental level (e.g., be direct and proximate, give/control choices).

These tips should help to establish your authority and improve your relationship with a preschool child. At this age, the kid is less likely to oppose you if he or she gets clear direction and support.

Schoolers

During their early school years, schoolers have more social interaction with their peers and contact with other authority figures. They start to feel confident and proud of their successes, skills, and abilities. Their sense of identity is not yet well-developed, which they explore by taking control and acting independently. However, because their insight into risk, responsibility, and social norms is also not mature, they are inclined to act on impulse and curiosity.

The behavior of schoolers is more organized and reasoned than their younger brothers and sisters. Yet, they are still unable to think abstractly and most of their thoughts and motivations are based on concrete and direct events. Schoolers can also generalize from specific information, but instructions must still be clear and justified:

  • always try to give two choices. Insist on the default choice if they demand another option and that it is under your control;
  • create a daily routine for quality time and chats;
  • avoid solving all the child’s problems for him or her – ask for their solution and discuss the pros and cons;
  • use authoritative phrases like «I want you to…», and «It’s time for you to…»;
  • legitimize your authority in a calm and decisive way;
  • have the child reflect and write about what they did wrong and how to fix it. Then, discuss it with him or her;
  • simplify your family rules as much as possible. Examples are (1) respect yourself and others, (2) respect property, and (3) cooperate and obey. These rules become the basis of a positive family culture.

Clear rules, instructions, and routines from a position of authority are very important to manage the cooperation and expectations of your school child. They should learn respect and that, although it is important to recognize and talk about emotions, it has no part in a disagreement.

Teens

Teenagers have a better sense of self-identity. Who they perceive themselves to be determine their view of their place and value in the world, which forms the basis of the values and beliefs that guide their behavior. They have a better understanding of the rules and expectations that exist in society. However, adolescents are known to test their independence and control in the context of these boundaries.

Depending on their stress, excitability, and personality, teens are less risk-averse and may appear to be defiant and oppositional, which is often unintentional. They need structure within which to explore and develop their budding identity.

A perceived lack of support, respect, or recognition at home can prompt a teenager to seek these aspects elsewhere. He or she may also become frustrated and aggressive, acting without consideration of family members.

According to the National Runaway Switchboard, an American-based company aiding children who have or are consider running away from home and their families, one in seven children between 10- and 18-years old run away at least once. Kids run away or become defiant for different reasons.

There is abuse in the family. The family unit is strained or changed (e.g., separation, divorce, new baby, new stepparent). The teen is bullied at school. He or she has stress because of problems at school, peer pressure, using alcohol or drugs, or other worries (e.g., romantic breakup, safety, financial security, living arrangements). They may have mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. Or, the teen may have done something that he or she is embarrassed or ashamed of.

The first important step when a kid is acting defiantly or refuse to cooperate and follow advice or instructions, is to explore the reasons and deeper motivations for his or her conduct. Then, address the issues in a calm and understanding way. Ask for clarification.

  1. As a parent, focus more on your attitude than methods of discipline. Keep a positive perspective.
  2. Consistently show your teen that he or she is liked, fits in, and is recognized as a valuable person. Keep in mind that teens are especially sensitive of failure and rejection.
  3. Understand that teenagers typically experience loss, shame, embarrassment, and other feelings at highly intense levels. Show respect and regard for their feelings.
  4. Honor your child’s experience and intelligence. They’re at the early stages of taking control of their life and need to know that you see that they understand things better than before. Be a consultant and leader rather than a commander and boss.
  5. Make your expectations perfectly clear.
  6. Look, sound, and act with complete confidence in your authority.
  7. Avoid power struggles with your teenager. If you can’t, win them by making sure that you pick the issues that you control. For instance, don’t prohibit behavior but stipulate consequences that you can control instead (e.g., game system, computer).
  8. Exercise control at the level they demonstrate maturity. The typical levels of maturity are:
    • being selfish and self-centered (i.e., demanding and manipulative);
    • moving from fighting to cooperating (i.e., better moral preparedness, ready to negotiate);
    • having responsibility (i.e., initiative, respect, empathy).
  9. Utilize positive parenting techniques appropriate for the teenager’s developmental level (e.g., act according to the level of maturity that they display at any time, do “do-overs” like admitting mistakes).

Accept that your teen will probably want to spread his or her wings a little and test their independence. It is important that you allow them to engage with the world on their terms as long as they are safe and respectful. Blow is an infographic to help remind you of the key points of children’s development from preschool to adolescent years.

Now, let’s look at some of the many reasons that children may be unable or unwilling to cooperate, which is important to know to identify the underlying problem and solution.

Reasons kids refuse to cooperate

There are many reasons why a child may choose or have the urge not to cooperate with your wishes and demands. He or she may also lack the ability or conscious thought to do what is required. There is an important difference between a child who chooses to disobey an instruction or act against your expectations, and a child who is not able to conform.

A conscious choice not to cooperate is often based on a greater benefit perceived by the child, such as appeasing friends, having a nice time, or escaping from a troubling situation. He or she may not understand why they are expected to cooperate, doesn’t see enough downside if they don’t, or expects to experience distress or discomfort by doing what you expect. Older children can also become distrustful and deceptive if they don’t perceive a parent or another figure of authority to have enough wisdom and respect.

An inability to conform is something else entirely. The child may not understand what is expected of him or her. They may be unable to regulate their emotions or behavior. They may have an inner distress or conflict that is so painful, they need to do something to escape or avoid it.

When you, as a parent or caregiver, understand whether the child’s behavior is a choice or involuntary, you should assess the specific behavior that is problematic. Try to be objective when you consider the child’s decisions and actions and look deeper to find the real reasons underlying their defiance.

Some possible reasons include:

  • delinquent peer pressure;
  • substance use;
  • mood problems (e.g., anxiety, depression);
  • susceptibility (e.g., intellectual disability);
  • trauma (e.g., loss, bullying);
  • poor behavior regulation (e.g., anger issues, hostility);
  • paranoia (e.g., distrust);
  • antisocial personality traits (e.g., lying, callousness, risk-taking).

Depending on the severity and persistence, any of these issues may need professional assistance to resolve. Consult an expert if you are worried. However, also remember that, barring any severe dysfunction and harm, occasional refusal to cooperate is common among children of all ages as they test their control and independence.

Besides the age-related tips already mentioned, there are also some general things that you, as a parent, can keep in mind and try out when your child resists your authority.

Tips for parents

Experts agree that two techniques stand out to cultivate cooperation at most ages. The first is called «relationship before request» and here’s how it works.

Relationship before request

When you want your child to do something, first quietly watch and observe what they are busy with at that moment. Gage their level of attention and immersion.

Make a comment or ask a question about what they are doing to show you acknowledge and have an interest in them. «I see you are …» Or, «Can you tell me what you are busy with?»

Ask if you can join them for five minutes or however long you have until you need them to do something else. Let your kid take the lead in how you should participate.

Then, wait for a natural stopping point or ask them if they want to do the other thing now in in five minutes time.

A choice gives them a sense of control. And, by now, you have shown them that you care and that they matter.

As a result, they are much more likely to cooperate without fuss than had you issued an immediate instruction.

Five-minute warning

Another helpful idea is to use the 5-minute warning technique.

Children of all ages, but especially younger kids, struggle with transitions. It helps them tremendously to switch from one activity to another by telling them that you want them to do something else in five minutes. Not now, immediately…in five minutes.

This gives them a sense of control. The chance to get their mind into doing what you need them to do next.

For instance:

  • «In five minutes, it’s time for you to brush your teeth»;
  • «In five minutes, I want you to leave the house».

Try it. You won’t believe how much this extremely simple technique cuts down power struggles, tantrums, and disregard.

But there are many more ideas and skills you need to improve a child’s cooperation.

More tips and skills you need when kids refuse to cooperate

Here is a summary of more tips to deal with a kid’s uncooperative behavior. Above all, keep a positive attitude, stay calm, and engage respectfully with your child. Be a good model for what you expect from them.

  1. Know your emotions. Always try to understand what you are feeling and why. Be honest with yourself. Identify the deeper reason that something triggers anger, disappointment, or disapproval.
  2. Express your emotions and allow your child the opportunity to do the same. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to tell others how you are feeling and why. Try to be objective, clear, and specific. Use words – don’t act out.
  3. Keep calm when you’re upset. Know the safe and constructive things you can do to relax and restore your inner peace. Perhaps, go for a run or walk outside, listen to music, paint, or write.
  4. Try to understand your child’s viewpoint. Ask for clarification if you need it. If you listened properly, the issue is usually already halfway resolved.
  5. Explain your position in a language that your child can understand. Give him or her valid reasons for limits and requests that you expect to be followed.
  6. Avoid using threats, pressure, intimidation, and dominance to coerce compliance.
  7. Discuss the issue that bothers you. Be clear. Give your child the opportunity to explain. Listen with attention.
  8. Don’t focus on the problem that you see. Focus on the solution. Make a list of at least three possible alternatives. Ask a trusted friend, family member, teacher, or neighbor for input if needed. Another perspective usually helps getting ahead. For each thing that you can do, consider the outcome and consequences. How will your child react? What is likely to happen next?
  9. Show your child respect as an appreciated member of the family. Recognize his or her strengths, skills, and abilities. Make a list and see how each can be utilized to overcome an issue.
  10. Give the child freedom and autonomy to make his or her own decisions and experience the consequences. Ensure to balance these rights with his or her safety and wellbeing.

These tips should set you well on the way to improve your relationship with your child and encourage cooperation.

When you have identified one or a few factors that probably play the deciding role in your child’s refusal to cooperate, evaluate the presence of each on the physical and emotional wellbeing, safety, and development of your child. Remember, if you believe there are signs that refusing to be cooperative and listening to your guidance can have lasting consequences, dealing with the issues is not an option.

The sources of frustration that you have identified typically lead to behavioral problems like refusing to cooperate, being argumentative or vindictive, and anger issues.

You have to win back your child’s trust and understanding. Being cooperatives mean you are a team that work together to benefit the whole family. To restore cooperation, teaching the child objective reasons for compliance is the only way the battle can be won.

Conclusion

A child who cooperated poorly or refused to listen to advice and instructions in the past weeks probably have one or more underlying issues in his or her life. As a parent, you should objectively and honestly take stock of your expectations, behavior, and relationship with your child. The older a kid is, the less directly a behavior problem points to an underlying issue.

If you are concerned that your child may be involved in risky activities, such as running away from home, moving in unsafe areas, spending time with delinquent peers or strangers, or staying out at night, you need to take other precautions beside educating and warning your child. Sometimes, it is not enough to take a step back and hope for the best. You have to operate at a more watchful level (without necessarily being a helicopter parent).

Listen to your child. Look for behavior changes that may spell trouble. You’ve got to consider who with and where they hang out. Knowing where your child is can give you an added sense of reassurance. A great tip is to get the “Find my Kids” app, which is one of the best tools for parents to keep an eye on their child’s phone usage and location. With this app installed on a smart phone or GPS watch, help can be given when needed.

Remember…

As long as your kid is safe, enjoy participating in the adventure of his or her development. Balance kindness and firmness and you’ll be surprised how many concerns resolve naturally.

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