Strategies for Managing Your Child's Resistant Behavior
An expert explains how to manage resistance by identifying the purpose a behavior serves for a child.
By John W. Maag, Ph.D.
Sally: Mom, can I go out and play after dinner?
Mom: Not tonight, dear.
Sally (whining): But whyyyyy?
Mom: I don't want you to be too tired for school tomorrow, and, besides, you were out the last three nights in a row.
Sally (forcefully): That's a stupid reason! Kathy, Ryan, and Monica all get to go out more than three nights in a row. You like those kids, and their parents even go to our church. So, why not?
Mom (exasperated): Because I said so!
Sally (glaring): No! I'm not staying in, and you can't make me!
What's Behind the Resistance?
What parent can't relate to the extremely frustrating situation described above? As a parent, you expect your child to do what you ask, in a respectful manner. Why does your child challenge your authority? There is no mystery as to why children say "No" to parents' directions. This non-compliant behavior allows them to:
- gain attention
- avoid a task they don't want to do
- or gain power by trying to irritate us
All too often, parents focus solely on the form, or outward appearance, of a child's behavior and don't stop to think about what purpose it's serving for the child. For example, a child may come home from school angry after being falsely accused of talking during class. She may have felt helpless in trying to convince the teacher of her innocence. So, upon walking into the house she may purposely knock a book off a shelf. When her dad politely asks her to pick up the book she replies, "No, I won't pick up the book! You can't make me pick up the book! No one can make me pick up the book!"
The form of the behavior - knocking a book off the shelf - is the least important aspect for the parent to address. The child could have just as easily thrown her backpack across the room, refused to do after-school chores, or yelled at her dad. So, what purpose does her behavior serve? Knocking the book to the floor is a way for the girl to feel empowered after feeling so helpless at school.
Laying the Groundwork for New Strategies
Here are some important preconditions for increasing your child's compliance:
- First, be aware that some habitual ways of dealing with your child, especially punishing her, may actually be making the negative interactions worse - and harder to change. When a child responds to a parent's direction by whining, throwing a temper tantrum, or just saying "No," it's common for parents to punish the child. But children who are highly uncooperative have most likely been punished repeatedly. If punishment worked, a parent would be using it less often rather than more often with a child because the result of the punishment would be to reduce or stop the child's unfavorable behaviors. Furthermore, when you try to administer punishment, you can easily get into a power struggle with your child. Once you find yourself in a power struggle, the child has already "won" by having gotten just what she wanted-to feel in control of the situation by irritating you.
- Second, research tells us that the way you make a request of a child can affect how she responds. It's easier to avoid power struggles and get compliance from your child if you give her directions in a clear, direct, and specific fashion, using as few words as possible, and give her a reasonable amount of time to comply. By contrast, you may encourage power struggles with your child if your commands are vague, overly wordy, and include multiple instructions for the desired behavior (Walker, Ramsey, & Gresham, 2004).
- Third, before you can try these new strategies to gain compliance, you must be able to create rapport with your child. Rapport involves communicating with a child, using the child's point of view. Here's an example: A girl says to her father after school, "Daddy, all the girls in my class have short nails. I want to be in style, too, so I'm going to start biting my nails." The father responds, "I think it's important for little girls to be in style, and I want you to be in style, too." This response creates rapport because it validates what his daughter is seeking. After all, what can she say in response? "No, you're wrong; I really don't want to be in style?" Once rapport is created, it becomes easier to obtain compliance.