Defiant Children – How to Overcome Resistance and Engage Cooperation

One of the built-in frustrations of parenthood is the daily struggle to get our defiant children to behave in ways that are acceptable to us and society. 

This can be maddening, uphill work.

Part of the problem lies in the conflict of needs

The adult need is for some semblance of cleanliness, order, courtesy, and routine.

The children couldn’t care less about those things. 

How many of them would, of their own volition, take a bath, say “please” or “thank you.” A lot of parental passion goes into helping children adjust to societal norms. And somehow the more intense we become, the more actively they resist.

Children with ADHD can struggle more with cooperation. Their sense of focus on a task at hand is more problematic for children with ADHD.

I know there were times when my own children thought of me as the “enemy” – the one who was always making them do what they didn’t want to do: “Wash your hands….Keep your voices down…. Hang up your coats…. Did you do your homework? ….  Get into bed…. “

I was also the one who stopped them from doing what they wanted to do:  “Don’t eat with your fingers…..Don’t jump on the sofa…Don’t pull the dog’s tail….”

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Now, I want you to pretend you’re a child listening to your parent speak. Let the words sink in.

What do they make YOU feel?

  • Blaming and Accusing

“Your dirty fingerprints are all over the door again! Why do you always do that?…. What’s the matter with you anyway? Can’t you ever do anything right?… How many times do I have to tell you to use the doorknob? The trouble with you is you never listen.”

As a child I’d feel __________________________________________________________

  • Name-calling

“It’s below freezing today and you’re wearing a light jacket! How dumb can you get? Boy, that really is a stupid thing to do.”
“Look at the way you eat! You’re disgusting.”
“You have to be a slob to keep such a filthy room. You live like an animal.”

As a child I’d feel _________________________________________________________

  • Threats

“Just you touch that lamp once more and you’ll get a smack.”
“If you don’t spit that gum out this minute, I’m going to open your mouth and take it out.”
“If you’re not finished dressing by the time, I count to three, I’m leaving without you!”

As a child I’d feel ____________________________________________________________

  •  Commands

“I want you to clean up your room right this minute.”
“Help me carry in the packages. Hurry up!…. What are you waiting for? Move?

As a child I’d feel ____________________________________________________________

  •  Lecturing and Moralizing

“Do you think that was a nice thing to do – to grab that book from me? I can see you don’t realize how important good manners are. What you have to understand is that if we expect people to be polite to us, then we must be polite to them in return. You wouldn’t want anyone to grab from you, would you? Then you shouldn’t grab from anyone else. We do unto others as we would have others do unto us?”

As a child I’d feel ____________________________________________________________

  •  Warnings

“Watch it, you’ll burn yourself.”
“Careful, you’ll get hit by a car!”
“Don’t climb there! Do you want to fall?”
“Put on your sweater or you’ll catch a bad cold.”

As a child I’d feel ____________________________________________________________

  •  Martyrdom Statements

“Will you two stop that screaming! What are you trying to do to me ….. make me sick …. Give me a heart attack?”
“Wait ‘til you have children of your own. Then you’ll know what aggravation is.”
“Do you see these gray hairs? That’s because of you. You’re putting me in my grave.”

As a child I’d feel ____________________________________________________________

  • Comparisons

“Why can’t you be more like your brother!” He always gets his work done ahead of time.”
“Lisa has such beautiful table manners. You’d never catch her eating with her fingers.”
“Why don’t you dress the way Gary does? He always looks so neat – short hair, shirt tucked in. It’s a pleasure to look at him.”

As a child I’d feel ____________________________________________________________

  • Sarcasm

“You knew you had a test tomorrow and left your book in school? Oh smart one! That was a brilliant thing to do.”
“Is that what you’re wearing polka dots and plaid? Well, you ought to get a lot of compliments today.” “Is this the homework you’re bringing to school tomorrow? Well maybe your teacher can read Chinese, I can’t.”

As a child I’d feel ____________________________________________________________

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  • Prophecy

“You lied to me about your report card, didn’t you? Do you know what you’re going to be when you grow up?  A person nobody can trust.”
“Just keep on being selfish. You’ll see, no one is ever going to want to play with you. You’ll have no friends.”
“All you ever do is complain. You’ve never once tried to help yourself. I can see you ten years from now-stuck with the same problems and still complaining.” 

As a child I’d feel ____________________________________________________________

Now that you know how the “child” in you would react to these approaches, you might be interested in finding out the reaction of others who have tried this exercise. Evidently different children respond differently to the same words. Here are some sample reactions from a group.

Blaming and Accusing. “The door is more important than I am”… “I’ll lie and tell her it wasn’t me” ….. “I’m a yuk”…. “I’m shrinking” …. “I want to call her a name” ……. “You say I never listen, so I won’t.”

Name-calling. “She’s right. I am stupid” “Ho hum, there she goes again!”

Threats. “I’ll touch the lamp when she’s not looking” …. “I want to cry” …. “I’m afraid” …. “Leave me alone.”

Commands. “Try and make me” …. “I’m frightened” …. “I don’t want to move” ….. “I hate his guts” …. “Whatever I do, I’ll be in trouble” …..

Lecturing and Moralizing. “Yak yak yak…. Who’s even listening?” ….  “I’m dumb” ….. I’m worthless” ….  “I want to get far away” ….  Boring, boring, boring.”

Warnings. “The world is scary, dangerous” … “How will I ever manage by myself? Whatever I do, I’ll be in trouble.”

Martyrdom Statements. “I feel guilty” ….  “I’m scared. It’s my fault she’s sick”….. “Who even cares?”

Comparisons.   “She loves everyone more than me” … “I hate Lisa” ….  “I feel like a failure”. … “I hate Gary too.”

Sarcasm.  “I don’t like being made fun of. She’s mean.” ….  “I’m humiliated, confused.” …. “Why even try?” ….  “I’ll get back at her” …..  “No matter what I do I can’t win” …. “I’m boiling with resentment.”

Prophecy. “She’s right. I never will amount to anything” …. “I can be trusted; I’ll prove him wrong” …. “It’s no use … “I give up” ….  “I’m doomed.”

If you want to learn more responses when children are uncooperative, download our suggested responses tool.

If we as adults experience these feelings just from reading some words on a page, what must real children feel?

Are there alternative ways to respond to children? 

Are there ways to engage our children’s cooperation without doing violence to their self-esteem or leaving them with bad feelings? Are there methods that are easier for parents, that take less of a toll from them?

These five skills have been helpful to parents.  Not every one of them will work with every child. Not every skill will suit your personality. And there isn’t either one of them that is effective all the time.

What these five skills do, however, is create a climate of respect in which the spirit of cooperation can begin to grow.

5 Skills To Engage Cooperation

  1. Describe. Describe what you see, or describe the problem
  2. Give information.
  3. Say it with a word.
  4. Talk about your feelings.
  5. Write a note.

Example to point 1, which describes what you see, or the problem:

ProblemThe tub is filling up with water and close to the top and may overflow.

Instead of ….  You’re so irresponsible. You always start the tub and then forget about it. Do you want us to have a flood!

Describe….  Johnny, the water in the bathtub is getting close to the top. 

Problem – Child was supposed to take the dog for a walk.

Instead of …. You haven’t taken that dog out all day. You don’t deserve to have a pet.

Describe….  I see rover packing up and down near the door.

Problem – Child forgets to turn the light off

Instead of…. How many times do I have to tell you to turn off the bathroom light after you use it!

Describe ….. The light’s on in the bathroom.

Examples to point 2; Give Information

Problem:  The child leaves the cart of milk out and didn’t put it away when she/he was done.

Instead of …. Who drank milk and left the bottle standing out?

Give information ….  Kids, milk turn sour when it isn’t refrigerated.

Problem:  The child leaves trash on the bed.

Instead of ….  That’s disgusting! Look at the apple cores on your bed. You live like a pig.

Give information ….  Apple cores belong in the garbage.

Problem:  The child writes on the wall.

Instead of ….  If I catch you writing on the walls once more, you’re going to get a spanking.

Give information …. Walls are not for writing on.  Paper is for writing on.

Problem: The child isn’t doing his/her chores.

Instead of …. It would never occur to you to give me a hand with the housework, would it?

Give information ….  It would really be helpful if the table were set for dinner now.

Examples to point 3; Say it with a word

Problem:  Kids aren’t getting ready for bed and are jumping on the couch.

Instead of …. I’ve been asking and asking you kids to get into pajamas and all you’ve been doing is clowning around. You agreed that before you watch TV you’d be in pajamas and I don’t see a sign of anyone doing anything about it.

Say it with a word … KIDS PAJAMAS!  (in this case, “less is more”)

Problem: Child forgets his/her lunch

Instead of …. Look at you! You’re walking out the door without your lunch again. You’d forget your head if it weren’t attached to you.

Say it with a word ….  Jamie, your LUNCH.

Instead of … You promised before we got a dog that you would feed him every day. Now, this is the third time I’ve had to remind you this week and I’m getting sick and tired of it. Mom and I take our turns and it’s not fair that we have the whole burden!

Say it with a word ….  Billy, the dog.

Examples to point 4; talk about your feelings

Problem: Child pulling on Father’s sleeve.

Instead of … Stop That! You’re a pain in the neck!

Talk About Your feelings …. I don’t like having my sleeve pulled.

Problem: Child leaves the screen door open!

Instead of … What is wrong with you? You always leave the screen door open!

Talk about your feelings …. It bothers me when the screen door is left open. I don’t want flies around our food.

Problem: Child interrupts what the parent is doing.

Instead of … You’re rude! You always interrupt.

Talk about your feelings … I feel so frustrated when I start to say something and can’t finish!

Problem: Child demands instead of asks.

Instead of …. What do you mean, ‘I have to take you’?  You sound like a spoiled brat!

Talk about your feelings….  I object to being told ‘I have to do’ anything. What I’d like to hear is, “Dad, I’m ready to go. Can you take me now?”

Write a Note

Sometimes nothing we say is as effective as the written word.

Problem: Child regularly leaves her long hairs in the sink drains and father is tired of it.

Write a note and paste it to the bathroom mirror ….  The note says,

“Help! Hairs in my drain give me pain. Glug, your stopped-up sink.”

Problem: Child is supposed to do his homework before watching TV.

Write a note and paste it to the TV ….  The note says,

“Before you turn this on – think – Have I done my homework?  Have I practiced?”

Problem: Parents wanted some extra sleep on Sunday morning.

Write a note…. These parents did a two-sided note and hung it on the outside of their bedroom door. One side reads,

“Shhh! Mommy and Daddy are sleeping.” 

When the parents were ready to greet the children, they flipped the note over and the other side reads,

“Hi! Come on in! Love, Mom and Dad.”

Problem: When you are tired of yelling, it may be a good time to let a note do the talking for you.

Write a note and hang it to the wall. The note says, “Dear Sam, I know you’re busy with sports and study, but the papers need to be cleaned up buddy-buddy. Thanks, Dad.

Problem: Children play and forget to pick up the toys.

Write a note and make it into an airplane and fly it into the room.  The note reads, “Toys away after play.” Love, Mom.

There you have it – five skills that encourage cooperation and leave no residue of bad feelings.

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