What is the real reason behind kids’ lack of cooperation – and how to support them to cooperate more!

We’ve asked our child TO DO something (e.g. tidy up), or NOT TO DO something (e.g. not throw food on the floor), and they seemingly ignore us or wilfully defy us. Why?

As I mentioned in my last post, we might have judgements come up in these situations, that we feel “explain” our child’s behaviour (e.g. “She’s lazy”, “He’s self-centred”). But these negative judgements are more a reflection of us – of the left over hurt feelings from our childhood and our current emotional state – than a true reflection of our child.

So what is the likely REAL reason why our child is not cooperating?

Here are a few possibilities:

1. OUR CHILD DIDN’T HEAR US, OR THEY HAVEN’T HAD TIME YET TO PROCESS WHAT WE’VE ASKED THEM

Although it can be frustrating, I recommend pausing, for longer than you might think, to give our child the space to process what we’ve asked them to do, and respond in their own time. Then, if they still don’t respond, it’s best to assume that they probably didn’t hear us. We can come in closer, say their name, perhaps give them a gentle touch, and wait until we have their attention, before saying, “I’m not sure if you heard me, but I’ve asked you to …”.

2. THE WAY WE’VE ASKED THEM HASN’T SEEMED KIND OR RESPECTFUL TO OUR CHILD

This can happen if we use a demand or have harshness in our voice when we ask. It can happen inadvertently, if we are feeling preoccupied, rushed or stressed, and that comes through as tension in our voice. Sometimes, if we end up yelling, it can feel scary for our child, which can send them into fight, flee or freeze, making it very difficult for them to cooperate. If we feel this may be at play, it’s best to take a breath and a minute to calm ourselves, before connecting with our child and asking again in a more gentle and supportive manner. Offering genuine choices, and using declarative (“I could use help with this”) rather than imperative (“Help me clean up”) language, can also be really helpful, particularly for more sensitive children.

3. THE THING OUR CHILD IS DOING IS MEETING A GENUINE NEED FOR THEM

Whatever our child is doing instead of what we’re asking them to do could be meeting one of their needs (e.g. for exploration/experimentation, pleasure/fun, connection/attention, rest/relaxation, autonomy/choice, etc.). And because of that, they might not want to stop. If this is the case, then it can help to acknowledge the need and empathise with our child, and perhaps try to come up with a scenario in which they can meet that need in a way that also meets our needs. If they are old enough, we can talk with them to come up with a plan together.

Girl helping mother washing dishes
Image designed by Bearfotos / Freepik


4. OUR CHILD IS NOT DEVELOPMENTALLY READY TO DO THE THING WE’VE ASKED

Whatever our child’s age, it’s worth considering whether they might not be developmentally ready to do thing we’ve asked. They might not understand what or how to do the task. They might not have all of the cognitive or physical skills they need to carry it out. Or they might just find the task too big or overwhelming. In this case, our child may need more information, more precise instructions, to have the task broken down into smaller steps, to have help to do the task, or to do the task together. “Scaffolding” is the process of offering “just enough” help to enable a child to do a task. If it’s something we’re wanting our child to do every day, using visual cues, like visual schedules that show each step of a specific activity, can sometimes be helpful.

5. OUR CHILD IS NOT FEELING THE LEVEL OF CONNECTION WITH US THAT THEY NEED TO COOPERATE  

A sense of disconnection can sometimes get in the way of children being able to listen, think straight, relax and cooperate. It might be that our child needs some dedicated time and loving attention from us to fill their “emotional cup”. Shared play, especially when it involves lots of laughter, can be one of the quickest ways to boost a child’s sense of connection. And it can sometimes be “built into” the task we’re asking the child to do, for example, making the task into a game (e.g. using a power reversal game where we pretend we don’t know how to do it ourselves, a game where we work together to do it as quickly as we can, or putting on some music and dancing our way through it).  

6. OUR CHILD HAS SOME UNCOMFORTABLE FEELINGS OR STRESS ACCUMULATED IN THEIR BODY  

Children can have all sorts of feelings arise in them throughout the course of their days – disappointment, frustration, confusion, sadness, anger, fear, jealousy, etc. If they haven’t had a chance to offload these feelings through talking, crying or raging in the presence of an empathic listener, they may have trouble cooperating because they are busy “acting out” or distracting themselves from their feelings. Children can also still be holding stress and trauma in their bodies from earlier times, which can lead to challenging behaviours. Sometimes, we might need to set a loving limit on their behaviour, for example, saying gently, “I can’t let you do that”, using minimal physical resistance (e.g. placing our hand on their hand, or the object they’re using), and offering our warm attention and a willingness to listen to whatever feelings come up for them.  

👉 So, if we are feeling puzzled about why our child is not cooperating, or if they seem to be ignoring or disobeying us, my suggestion is to mentally run through these possibilities and see if we can come to a better understanding of the possible reason underneath our child’s behaviour.

For example, if during her dinner, your toddler throws food from the high chair to the floor, even after you’ve asked her not to, and you’re pretty sure she heard you and understood you asking her to stop …

Could it be because it was just so fun or interesting to throw whatever it was on the floor? If so, is there a way you could set up another similar activity for her to explore this, that also met your needs for not making a mess?

Or do you think she might be needing more attention/connection in that moment? If so, maybe you could stop what you’re doing to give her some of your attention for a little while before continuing with your own activity? And maybe schedule some dedicated time to play after dinner?

Or might it be that she is acting out some uncomfortable feelings? If so, she might need a loving limit to help her to offload her feelings through crying, so that she can return to a more comfortable, content and cooperative state?

Of course, we might not know for sure which of these it is, and we will only get clearer by letting our guesses about her feelings and needs guide our responses to her, and then seeing if it helps. And, just to keep things interesting, sometimes there might be a mixture of reasons!

❓ I wonder how all this sounds to you? I know I’ve crammed heaps of information into this post! So if you’d like clarification around any of the points, please let me know in the comments below!

❓ And if there is a situation in which you are having difficulty understanding what feelings or needs might be underlying your child’s behaviour, feel free to share it below and we can try to come up with some theories together.

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