My Child Won’t Listen

Parents often complain that their children “do not listen” and that is frequently a concern parents describe when they visit a child psychologist. When I met the parents of six year old Charlotte, they described daily power struggles over routine tasks – getting ready for bed at night – and essentially whenever they asked her to do something. Charlotte’s resistance often escalated into full-blown tantrums that occurred several times a week. This behaviour was disruptive to the whole family and sometimes interfered with family activities. Anticipating conflict whenever they asked Charlotte to do/not do something left her parents feeling tense and largely unable to enjoy their otherwise smart, imaginative and playful daughter.

Learning to comply/cooperate with the expectations of trusted adults (e.g. parents, teachers, coaches) is a critical part of a child’s social – emotional development and is essential to the child’s self image and overall well-being. The child needs to understand that he is cared for by adults whose wisdom and life experience can support him as he grows. Those adults responsible for his well-being also have the right to set boundaries for him and to have expectations of him.

Compliance occurs when a child follows through with an adult’s direction within a reasonable period of time. Defiance, conversely, describes an intentional and often overt resistance to an adult request; for example, when the child says NO and stubbornly refuses to comply. While Non-complicance does not always reflect Defiance, both contribute to frustration and conflict in the relationship between parent and child and furthermore undermine any sense of harmony and wellbeing within the family.

There is good news- Improving Compliance is an achievable goal! These worthy principles can support success in developing better cooperation from your child:

  1. Recognize that learning to cooperate with adult authority is a developmental task. Partner with your child, setting your child up to be successful in achieving this goal.
  2. Ensure that you are in close proximity to your child and have eye contact upon making requests.
  3. Communicate requests that are clear and reasonable for your child – requests that are based upon your child’s age, temperament and skills.
  4. Focus attention on your child’s Compliance = praise his “cooperation”. Help your child see himself as a person who Does cooperate, who Is a “team player”.
  5. Identify the most important requests you have of your child. Avoid “nit picking” and over controlling – allow your child to make independent decisions appropriate to his age and level of development . (This will minimize opportunity for resistance and also allows your child to learn from experience).
  6. Avoid engaging in power struggles with your child. Remember that you are on the same team – your intentions for him are benevolent! You have the right and responsibility for authority and you can respond wisely to your child’s otherwise immature (ie inappropriate) responses. When your child is defiant, understand that as reflecting his immaturity and choose to respond in a calm and authoritative manner – let him know you can handle his poor behaviour (and that you are intent on supporting him developing more appropriate behaviour).
  7. Set Compliance/Cooperation as a Target Goal for you and your child. Keep a record or tally of compliant behaviour and work towards a prize – a privilege, activity together or small gift that can acknowledge both your child’s efforts to Cooperate as well as your effectiveness as a Parent – Child team.

A defiant child can cause chaos not only at home but also at school and elsewhere. The roots of defiance can include the child’s genetic background, his temperament, and developmental history as well as certain parental characteristics. Where defiant behaviour persists, consultation with a child psychologist or counsellor specialized in treating children can be indicated. That specialist would be expected to assess the child, rule out other potential factors, thoroughly conceptualize the reasons for the child’s oppositional behaviour and then work with the family as they support their child’s healthy emotional development.


Recommended Reading: Your Defiant Child by Russell A. Barkley and Christine M Benton. Guilford Press, 2013

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For over 40 years Nancy has practiced as a Registered Psychologist, specialized in assessing and treating children, adolescents and families. She has practiced with Boyd & Associates since 1991; prior to that she worked in varied government and private programs.

Nancy supports children and teens who present with a range of mental health concerns including anxiety, depression, ADHD, adjustment, trauma, and family issues. She assists families and parents in their intentions to effectively support their children's emotional development and well being.

Nancy graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1977 with her Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology. She is a member of the B.C. Psychological Association.

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