When behaviour turns "ugly". Four reasons children become uncooperative.
"Why is my child giving me such a hard time?" Four reasons children do not cooperate and how we can begin to boost it!
Few things spark an emotional trigger quicker than when a child rejects or even abuses their parent. I recall working with a mama who felt like she was at her wit's end with her four year old's aggressive behaviour towards her. It seemed that no matter how hard she tried to get through to him he was becoming angry and physical on a daily basis.
Screaming, scratching and hitting were part of a typical day in their house. As soon as mama would tell her son to clean up his Lego or get dressed for school, the battle would begin. Desperate, the parents had become reliant on bribes and threats to get their youngster into gear every morning before preschool. Without the promise of a reward or threat of some lost privilege, he simply wouldn't cooperate.
After months of going back and forth between strategies (most of them flopping) the family decided to turn to me for some support.
I am sharing some of their story in hopes that it will help you today if you are struggling with your little one's cooperation and overall behaviour. Sometimes listening and obedience starts small and over time builds into a real, big problem. For instance, it may begin with a few bribes here and there to get them dressed or in the bath..and may grow into constant bribes (and threats) for getting into the car, packing their toys away or staying in bed.
Cooperation is an important ingredient for any family. But why is it so hard sometimes? and how can we make it more enjoyable for everyone?
"I just want to enjoy being around my kids again." said one parent last month. While it's easy to judge other parents, I think it's important to be honest with ourselves. We have all experienced moments of frustration and overwhelm when it comes to disobedience. These thoughts aren't always as far off as we may like them to be. So, grab yourself a cuppa and let's get into it.
Four reasons your child is having a hard time cooperating.
1. They don't see the benefits.
It's easy to forget sometimes that children are people just like us and their brains work similarly. Cooperation and listening is always based on mutual benefit as adults. However, with our children, we often expect them to "just do it." How often have you heard yourself say or think, "Because I said so!"?
No matter the child's age, young brains resist that line of thinking. This is where we need to understand how their brains function. Defiance and disobedience is often seen as intentional or "rude" behaviour, however evidence tells us that it is a natural response to coercion. The more we push: the more their brains will naturally push back.
There is a physiological response in the brain to resist being told what to do. Your youngster is responding to their brain work. This form of resistance takes place at a subconscious level.
2. They aren't feeling relevant.
Studies have shown that we are placing demands far too often for children to feel connected and relevant. This is an important factor if we want kiddos to be more cooperative. Remembering that placing demands too often can lead to a physiological response to resist, I encourage families and educators to reflect on how often they are actually giving instructions versus making those necessary connections.
This is where the 80/20 rule comes in handy. Behaviour research has shown that too often adults are placing demands during 80% of their exchanges with children. 80%! That is a huge percentage. Once we look at it in this new light we can begin to understand a child's feeling of irrelevance. Personally, I know I do not respond well when I feel like I have few choices or an option at all.
3. They are cornered and the chances aren't in their favour.
When we are placing demands this often, children really only have two choices: to cooperate or to not cooperate. This is placing them in a 50/50 corner.
How often have you heard yourself say, "Do you want to put your shoes on so we can leave?" or how about, "Put your shoes on, it's time to leave."?
Both of these instructions place your kiddo in a position to make a decision. They can choose "yes" or "no". If cooperation is based on feeling relevant and recognising the benefits, what chances does your little one have in this moment to listen? We may be setting kiddos up to defy us rather than cooperate simply by how we place those demands. (Talk about "food for thought"!!)
4. They are so unreasonable.
We all know how unreasonable children can be! What is so interesting about this final point is that being unreasonable is exactly how they are supposed to be at this stage in their brain development. Reasoning requires being able to adapt, problem solve and relate to others. In order for a young child to do this all successfully, they would require a developed cortex which they simply do not have yet.
Children are born egocentric thinkers. We all are. The difference between ourselves and kiddos is that they are primarily relying on their "reactive, primal brain" to make their decisions while we are able to rely on our fully developed "thinking brain".
Reasoning with your child (especially under 4 years old) will only turn in to a headache for both of you! This is nobody's fault but it certainly adds to the challenges of getting youngsters to cooperate.
Far out! This may sound overwhelming when you read it all at once like I have presented it... but the good news is it needn't feel that way. Helping children cooperate and boosting your family's overall happiness and teamwork begins with understanding what can often get in the way of that smooth ride. If you feel like things have been bumpy lately (or maybe a rollercoaster ride!!) then please take these next few tips on board.
You can help your youngster cooperate by taking these small steps in that direction.
1. Help your kiddos experience the benefits of cooperation by always starting simple to boost their immediate success and offering praise for their effort. We often wait to praise their effort until there is a big demand (like getting dressed in the morning, leaving the play date, eating all their dinner etc.). Instead, I encourage you to find small, frequent ways for them to feel the natural joys of working as a team as well.
2. Help your kiddos feel relevant by including them in decisions wherever possible and monitoring how often you are placing instructions versus making those connections! Grab our free download to learn easy ways to make strong connections today.
3. Be mindful of placing children in a corner where they are likely to resist you. If your youngster has a 50/50 chance of cooperating they are automatically set up to fail. This places you in a difficult position as well when you are forced to follow through and, sometimes, break their trust. A good rule of thumb is avoiding close ended ("Do you") questions when you are trying to boost cooperation.
4. Understand that their inability to reason is not intentional and try to keep it as simple as possible for them to be successful. When we double down on lectures and explanations it can increase that wedge of resistance that may already exist. Children become overwhelmed easily when their brains feel "spent". When we acknowledge this by resisting our own urges to control behaviour and over-explain things, everything becomes a lot easier.
What do you think of the points we covered in this article? Have you noticed your kiddo being uncooperative lately? Which key point will you most likely take on board? I would love to hear your thoughts!
About the author
Stephanie Wicker is a child behaviour expert, parenting educator, counsellor and speaker - who has successfully guided families through early childhood for over 15 years. Through her experience with private consultancy, as a preschool teacher and special needs therapist - she has worked across the many facets of early childhood behaviour.
Stephanie's evidence-based programs are grounded in behaviour science and her passion for Relational Frame Theory (RFT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and developmental psychology all play a big role in her programs.
Stephanie’s experience covers early intensive behaviour intervention programs for children with special needs and for families newly diagnosed. She hosts live training events all over Australia, where she shares her practical solutions and language techniques, along with providing private, in-home therapy sessions for those seeking more personalised support.
Through her company, Simply Kids she provides family resources such as digital books and educational activities, designed to keep behaviour simple.
"By helping parents place emphasis on connection, empowerment and encouragement, I believe that all children have the ability to reach their full potential." - Stephanie Wicker