Help for Noncompliant Children

stubborn child

By Mark Luzader, LCSW, Courier & Press, May 31, 2016 –

We hear a lot these days about children who are getting the better of their parents.

Working with noncompliant children is where I started my career in behavioral health almost 17 years ago.

There are many reasons a child can be oppositional. Sometimes it’s trauma and sometimes it’s a developmental disorder such as autism. Anxiety and depression can also make a child more irritable, less flexible and less likely to adapt to the demands placed on them. Other times it’s the parenting that is the problem.

Here are a few rules I have found that are “tried and true” when it comes to dealing with difficult kids:

Rule #1: Be proactive. None of us are at our best in a crisis. If you think ahead, you can set things up before the inevitable begins. For example, before going into the store, let the child know whether or not they’re getting that candy in the checkout lane (that’s your call), but prepare yourself for what you’re going to do if they start a meltdown when they are told, “no.”

Rule #2: Don’t reward negative behavior. Once a behavior has started, your job is to calm your child. Sometimes that can be accomplished by words, removal from the situation, or you may just have to ride it out. Don’t extinguish the behavior by giving in.

Rule #3: Once the word, “no,” has passed your lips, it is law. Make sure you really mean it. If you need time to think about it, say so.

Rule #4: Understand what motivates your child and use it. For little ones it is usually a material thing. For older ones it is their means of independence (car, phone, etc.). Bottom line: kids are entitled to food, water, shelter, clothing and love. Everything else is a privilege.

Rule #5: Older children are often experts at dragging you into power struggles. Giving choices instead of orders gets you out of them. That doesn’t mean, “You can choose to do your homework or you can choose not to.” What I mean is, “You can choose to do homework quickly and have time for fun,” or, “you can choose to wait and not do anything fun.”

Rule #6: Whenever possible, use natural consequences. When used correctly, it is powerful reinforcement. If your 9th grader is too cool to wear a coat to school in 30-degree weather, she’ll be cold. It’s not worth fighting over; let her experience the natural consequence.

Rule #7: Most parents yell, but others use yelling in lieu of actual consequences. Children learn to block it out, so use it sparingly.

Rule #8: If you give a time-limited consequence, make it realistic. I can’t count the number of times a child has told me, “Mom says I’m grounded for a month,” and when I ask what that means they tell me, “Usually that means it’s a couple of days.” If your child has truly done something rotten, take the time to make a realistic decision you can enforce.

The most important thing you can do is have a good relationship with your child. Take time to do things together. Have a sit-down dinner, check in and listen to what they have to say. The more time you spend being proactive, the less time you’ll spend pulling your hair out over being challenged.