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Strategies for Managing Your Child's Resistant Behavior

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By John W. Maag, Ph.D.

New Strategies to Encourage Compliance

There are four rather unusual, but more positive, strategies for increasing compliance in, and avoiding power struggles with, your child.  Although these approaches require you to re-think some ways of managing your child's behavior, managing resistance doesn't have to be a complicated, time-consuming, and frustrating endeavor.  Children always give us clues on how to deal with them successfully.  But you must be looking for these clues and know how to turn them into strategies for managing your child's behavior.  Unfortunately, the older we get, the more stuck we can become in habitual ways of looking at and responding to our child's misbehavior.  Consequently, we fail to pick up on these important clues that are a key to compliance.

The key to changing a child's resistant behavior is changing the context - either the setting or circumstances - that surrounds her behavior.  If you think about it, any behavior gets its meaning from the context in which it happens:  A lifeguard's skills have more meaning in the context of a public swimming pool than they do on a ski slope; reading has more meaning in the context of a library than it does in a game of soccer.  All behavior is defined by its context.  Therefore, if you can change the context surrounding your child's behavior, you can also change the meaning, purpose, and her motivation to engage in the behavior.  I'll describe four strategies based on this idea.

Three Important Considerations for Using these Techniques

  • Be aware that these methods involve telling a child to continue performing the unwanted behavior in some way.  However, the short-term hassle will have a long-term payoff of more cooperative children. 
  • Because you will permit a child to perform unwanted behavior, these approaches cannot be used for behaviors that are dangerous to others (i.e., aggression) or to the child (i.e., self-injury). 
  • Most importantly, you must be able to present these approaches to a child with an attitude that you are pleased she can become even better at the behavior.  When you don't respond negatively, there's no payoff for the child in continuing the behavior.

Direct a Child to Engage in More of the Behavior

The idea behind this approach is that everyone has a tolerance level for how much of a behavior they want to perform.  When we make a child's tolerance level intolerable, she will change the behavior on her own.  Recall the example of the father whose daughter wanted to be "in style" by having short fingernails.  He created rapport with her, then he scheduled time for her to perform the undesirable behavior.  "You have a lot of catching up to do," he told her.  "Every day when you come home from school, why don't you grab the kitchen timer, go in your room, set it for 15 minutes, and practice biting your nails." The father was not angry, nor did he deliver the standard lecture about the drawbacks of nail biting.  Instead, he expressed pleasure that his daughter had a chance to "catch up" and "be in style" with her classmates. 

His daughter followed his direction to the letter because (1) it was what she wanted to do and (2) the direction was not presented as punishment.  Over several days, his daughter spent less and less time until one day she said to her father, "Daddy, I think I'm going to start a new style at school — long nails."  The behavior was no longer any fun to perform.

Comments from readers

"So there is power in sarcasm and deception - interesting... I think that I will stick with being honest with my kids (and making them pick up the book, etc.) But let me know how this approach works for you, I can certainly see that it is not confrontational. By the way, is that what we are trying to avoid now-a-days?"
"Using ' The child's point of view ' how great are the chances that your kid will be a real brat at the end? It seams that this is a convenient way to avoid a real communication with your kid which implies explaining to her what is right and what is not and when It is not, explaining why. 'You can bite your nails but you'll ruin your teeth' sounds less like nonsense than ' I want you to be in style too'. According to this article, a kid will drop her controversial attitude by exhaustion and not by understanding. She will keep going 'till She'll get her satisfation and not knowing any boundaries. Sorry It doesn't seem to work. "
"Good and informative post. Thanks for sharing it. Small children are incapable of understanding certain things. Don't yell at them, and don't ever compare with other children. They should be properly understood with love and care else things can get worse. To know more on this topic, refer"
"This was an excellent article. I am having a lot of problems with my sons frustrating and argumentative behavior. I am going to have my husband read this article and see if between the 2 of us we maybe can come up with a plan. Thank you, Erin"