A father calmly asks his daughter to get into her car seat.
“No, I won’t!” she screams at a decibel only reached by rocket jets.
Being a responsible parent, this father needs to get his child to cooperate. Yet the extremeness of that no can send the calmest parents into fits of frustration.
Our culture has attitudes around parenting that run deep – and often unconsciously. One of these is getting the child to cooperate by “breaking” their will. Parents may resort to forcing some discomfort on their child to get her to comply, whether it’s threats, yelling or stronger punishment.
Another cultural attitude is to coerce the child’s will into cooperating. This might include bribes, pleading or retreating from an earlier boundary or limit.
And some parents experience their child’s resistance as manipulation. They feel they must exert power over their child to get them to stop and a battle of wills ensues.
We can look to child development for some answers in understanding why the child might resist.
Refusal by young children is often due to their undeveloped impulse control. They may know what is being asked but are unable to override their immediate response.
Someone may comment that a child who is throwing things or biting someone else is “out of control.” Yes, that’s true. Impulse control is a new-to-me skill for young children. The result is that the survival part of the brain often appears combative, resistant or uncooperative.
Children need to resist the parent’s agenda, test the environment and learn through exploration. There is so much to learn while resisting. Compliance rarely carries the kind of learning that occurs when the child refuses.
Roots of Resistance
Putting on our Curious Detective hat as parents, we can observe and note what needs are being met behind resistant behavior. From there, we can come up with healthier ways for the child to get their needs met.
There are nine Roots of Resistance that are occurring within the child, all developmentally appropriate as they experiment with and grow their Mature Selves.
The nervous system of a child is developing. The parent reminds: “Hold the cup tightly so it won’t spill.” The child’s brain and muscles are unable to hook up to keep a tight grasp. The child often is as upset as the parent when the cup spills.
Tip: Allow the child many positive opportunities to practice the behavior, in this case holding a cup. The parent prepares for any spills by putting down a spill mat or having towels ready.
The child delights in the effect of his own actions. Curiosity was stronger than anything he was told to do.
Tip: Once you notice your child playing with cause and effect, give her opportunities to practice. In this case, try water play, dropping the sippy cup in the sink, dropping unbreakable items outside from different heights, etc.
When the child has a behavior that gets a reaction from the parent, he is likely to repeat it. One time, the parent ignored the spill. Last time, the parent got upset and yelled. What will happen this time?
Tip: Be as consistent as possible when off-track behaviors occur. This way, the child can experiment with consistency in other more on-track experiences.
When a child is off-track, adult focus usually goes to the child. There’s often excitement and attention if he spills the milk, even if it is negative attention.
Tip: Have regular undivided special time with each child. This can be short (parents are busy people). Frequency allows for the child to feel secure around getting connection. Naming it Special Time gives the child a way to ask for it instead of using off-track behavior to get that attention.
When the cup spills, the parent may run around scolding and cleaning. The child can see that she was in charge of making that happen. This feels powerful. All humans need to feel a sense of power and control in their lives.
Tip: Allow your child to feel in control when it is developmentally appropriate. Have them take a turn leading a family meeting or help to plan a fun family event.
Sometimes kids, just like adults, have a bad day. An off-track action may help to discharge discomfort.
Tip: Work with family members to discover a pressure release valve for each. This is an action that helps relieve stress or assists challenging emotions. It might be a physical action for one (like jumping jacks or running around the house), or a calming action for another (like taking 5 breaths or having a bath).
The child doesn’t want to do what is asked. He may have his own idea of how things should go. His resistance fills his need for autonomy.
Tip: Parents can give a child two acceptable choices. When possible, the child’s third choice can be incorporated – maybe not right then – but perhaps next time. The child can also be involved with planning what is coming next, so they feel part of the family’s decisions and transitions.
This is often more interesting than ease and predictability. Humans have a need for variety. Conflict often changes up the energy of a situation and is exciting.
Tip: Keep an eye out for too much sameness. For instance, if siblings have been playing well together for an hour, they might be on the verge of needing some “conflict” to change things up. Suggest a change (activity, location, have a snack, etc.) before the conflict occurs.
A child may be very content with her behavior even though it’s not working for others. The child is asked to stop doing something, but it feels too good to change course. The child gets upset at having to stop what she is doing.
Tip: When it’s not possible to give a child a choice, be a supportive shoulder for them to cry on. Listen, nod, mirror back (oh, that seems hard). Try not to “fix” or change your child’s upset feeling in that moment.
In addition to these common Roots of Resistance, consider outer and inner influences. There might be a physical component contributing to the defiance such as lack of sleep, physical tension like a headache, or a food sensitivity. The child might also be feeling the stress of the parents (there are extra stressors these days) or affected by a change in school, a move, parent relationships or a death.
Observing a child’s refusal within the Roots of Resistance can guide parents toward healthy positive responses. Give the child chances to practice new behaviors, eventually internalizing them and initiating the behavior themselves. The eventual result is children acting from their internal maturing selves rather than because of outer-imposed limits or threats.
Annie Keeling, MFA, is the Parenting Specialist for Nevada County Superintendent of Schools. Currently, she is teaching parenting classes online. The next Nurturing Parenting Virtual Seminar will start in January. Contact Annie for more information: [email protected] or 530-268-5086.