September 20th, 2020

Is your child’s lack of cooperation a result of powerlessness?

If you live in the northern hemisphere your children have recently started a new school year. Some of them will be doing face to face learning (maybe after a long period away) and some will be learning from home. Some will start off doing in-school learning and then find themselves at home again for a period if schools are closed in response to an outbreak. Like all of us children find this constant change very unsettling and this upset may emerge in defiant behaviour. When we clamp down on the behaviour without addressing the underlying emotion not only will the behaviour remain but we will have caused a bit of disconnect with our child just when they most need to feel the security of connection with us.

Adults often think that the way to be in charge is to make every decision and brook no argument or even discussion about it from children, especially if that is how we were brought up ourselves. We often feel that when a child ‘talks back’ they are disrespecting our authority. Rarely is this their intention. There may be many reasons for uncooperative behaviour and the best thing we can do is to try to consider our child’s point of view and to gauge how they feel. If behaviour is unacceptable this approach is not to excuse it but to understand it and to know how best to respond to it.

This week I witnessed some very extreme behaviour from a little boy who was going through a very difficult time. His mum was in hospital and his dad was away from home and prevented from returning because of Covid restrictions. Arrangements for his care were piecemeal and he was not consulted about any of them. It is to be expected that adults need to make those kind of decisions but the result was a little boy who felt like his world was spinning around and he had no control over anything.

His way of expressing his upset included banging his feet on doors, up-ending rubbish bins, pulling electrical equipment out of the wall and trying to run away. When outside he uprooted several plants and turned the hose on me! Lucky it was a warm day…

It is not uncommon for children to feel really powerless and sometimes their response is to try to seize power wherever they can. For very young children the easiest areas to exert control are around food or using the toilet.

It is completely natural for all of us to want to have some autonomy in our lives. Humans are hardwired to seek to make choices according to our own free will. We hate being forced to do things. From around the age of 3 we discover the limits of our power and often find that hard to accept. The ‘terrible twos and threes’ can be characterised by a battle of wills. Young children don’t get to decide where they go, what they eat, who they interact with, what they can touch and when they bathe, brush teeth and go to bed or how many stories they can have. They can be very vocal in expressing their rage. Of course in adolescence there is a further drive for independence and this can again cause conflict with parents.

As we mature we accept some limitations on our power. As adults we accept some compromise on our freedoms as a trade-off for other benefits. For example we accept the need to wear seat belts and observe speed limits as part of the contract of using the roads and keeping us safe. This acceptance depends on a mature brain which can look to the future and make judgments about the perceived future benefit of accepting the current restriction. Of course not everyone makes the same cost/benefit analysis. Consider the different responses to Covid restrictions, like mask-wearing.

Preventing powerlessness from leading to defiance

Parents can help children process and move through their emotions. They can help them accept the limits on their autonomy. And they can help a child or young person feel that they have some say in their own lives too.

Emotion coaching

Research tells us that naming emotions helps a child to process and move through an emotion. fMRI scans show the emotional centres of the brain light up less when the feeling is labelled. Recognising that your child is frustrated by whatever it is they cannot do will help them to feel understood. Once the feeling is acknowledged  the child does not need to keep expressing it through their words or behaviour. Even if the parent seems to be the source of the frustration, because they are forbidding the desired activity, by recognising how the child feels there is still connection between adult and child. “You are so cross that mummy won’t let you climb up on the bookshelves. It’s my job to keep you safe but I know you really love climbing.” “I know you’re really annoyed that I won’t let you go to the music festival with your friends. You think my concerns are unreasonable. I know you think I should just trust you. Actually it’s not you I don’t trust….”

Give choices

Let your child choose whenever possible. They may not be able to say whether homework happens but they might be able to choose when, where and how it takes place. They can choose whether to brush their teeth before or after they get into pyjamas. They can choose what clothes to wear, even if it’s not your taste… most of the time. Many young children hate being picked up and we do want children to have autonomy over their bodies so it can work to give them a choice. “We have to go home now so you can choose to walk or skip over to the car on your own or I can give you a piggy back.”

Get your child’s input on matters that concern them. When setting limits for screentime for instance you could first set out your values around screens and then ask the children what they think the rules should be.

So if you find your child resisting the things they need to do consider how it seems from their perspective, acknowledge how they feel about it and ask for their ideas on how to make what they have to do more palatable.

Posted in: Cooperation , Emotion Coaching





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