A Gentle Parent’s Guide to Getting Your Children to Do Something
You’re on the home stretch. Dinner is done. Toys have been tidied. PJs are on. You have storybooks in hand, and there is just one thing to do.
“Time to brush your teeth,” you tell your 5-year-old…
…Who looks at you with disgust, yells, “NO!” and runs in the opposite direction.
You wonder why you are surprised. He does this most nights.
As you sink down on the sofa, you mentally scroll through your options.
You could pull him out from under the bed where you know he is hiding, and bring him kicking and screaming to the bathroom (reminding him how he needs to brush his teeth to avoid cavities).
You could give in and tell him his teeth have to be done tomorrow (and face the same argument all over again then.)
You could offer a barter. An extra book and a song in return for his compliance. (However, you know he will string out negotiations and your frustration will hit new levels.)
Bribes, rewards and forcing a child will not work long term
When our children resist doing things that need to be done, our options can feel limited. And none of the above strategies prove useful for long. Forcing a child to do something feels harsh and diminishes trust. Giving in shows a child that when they go off-track you cave in, and puts them in a position of too much authority for their young years. And bartering and rewards have been shown to reduce children’s intrinsic motivation; in addition,they continue the struggle between you.
But there is one other approach that you can use when you decide that something really does need to get done.
The Real Reason Kids' Say No
When a child refuses to do what you ask, there are hidden reasons. Our kids don’t deliberately say no just to push our buttons. When they do say no, it’s because their feelings and emotions have overwhelmed their ability to think and cooperate. Saying “No!” is a signal that your attention on the subject is needed. The options listed above are temporary solutions based on wielding power over an already anxious child, or on giving up forging a healthy solution that pleases both of you.
For more on this get our free guide to Understanding Children's Emotions. Learn how your child's emotions can contribute to challenging behavior and how to overcome it.
This post will show you a fresh approach that fosters trust, partnership and co-regulation. You'll discover a supportive way to work with your child. You'll dissolve the feelings driving their resistance until they are happy to be part of the solution.
Holding An Expectation Calmly When Your Child Refuses
With some forward planning, your child will soon feel able to do more of the things you ask.
This approach gives you a seven-step route-map to help you:
- Identify which expectations to hold.
- Get into a place where you and your child are ready to partner on getting tasks done.
- Begin breaking down the resistance in a supportive way.
You can think of it as the “Seven C’s For Holding An Expectation.
The Seven “C’s” are:
- Continuing process: When setting limits, adopt a long-term view
- Choose: Decide which request you want to work on
- Cultivate: Lay the groundwork with both yourself and your child
- Communicate/consent: Set the expectation when things are calm
- Confidence: Hold the expectation
- Calm: Calm and helpful responses to use when your child says no
- Care: Respond with listening and care when your child says no
Adopt a Long-Term View
We often think of limit-setting as something that has to happen quickly, when we ask, and without delay. And we seek quick fixes when we don’t get immediate obedience. In this fresh approach, it’s important to see limit-setting as an ongoing project. We will be working not on the resistance itself, but the cause of the resistance. This requires a longer-term
Decide Which Request Do You Want to Work On
If your child resists waking up, eating breakfast, going to school, picking up their belongings, and going to sleep, it can be hard to know where to start. And it’s tempting to want to work on everything at once!
Pick one issue, and focus there.
Decide which limit is most important to you, and why that might be (we’ll explore more about this in Laying Groundwork With Yourself) and then find a good time to approach the subject when things are calm (and before you need it done).
Lay The Groundwork
Approach the resistance from both sides, yours and your child's.
Groundwork with your child
When we are getting along well with someone else, we are more trusting and able to answer to their requests, and so before holding an expectation you want to make sure that you are feeling in touch, open, and close to your child.
There are a few good ways to build this closeness. Sharing time doing the things your child chooses, laughing often, and playing together are all helpful ways to build that connection. Using Hand in Hand Parenting’s Playlistening and Special Time tools naturally builds opportunities to interact in a way that fosters closeness each day.
Special Time – an invitation to play in which you give your child a specific amount of time to choose what they want to play, and how you will be involved – is a brilliant tool to use often. It helps your child really feel the warmth of your attention. Once you have identified a pattern of resistance around a task, you can boost connection further by offering five or ten minutes of Special Time before you hold an expectation for them to do something. If your child’s resistance to a task is linked to needing more of your attention, you may even see their resistance totally disappear after some intensive Special Time.
You can also try using Playlistening around tasks and expectations in these ways:
- Reverse roles and become the one who doesn’t want to do things. Make it exaggerated and playful, but only continue if you find it makes your child laugh.
- Create a routine of a playful and physical play with lots of laughter. For example, while I was building toward addressing my son’s frequent resistance, we played more roughhousing games, usually before we began our bedtime routine.
Playlistening helps you target resistance indirectly, using laughter and play, and can be a powerful way to shift your child’s shouts of “No” to “Yes.”
Groundwork for yourself
Setting limits is as much about us as it is our kids. Although a child’s refusal might appear to be their issue, it can trigger a rush of feelings for us too. It helps to start holding an expectation or a limit after getting grounded and comfortable about it ourselves.
For instance, when my son suddenly resisted going to preschool for a few consecutive mornings, I started doing my own groundwork. I checked to see if I still thought that the preschool was right for him, and thought once again about whether he was ready for it. Yes was my answer to both, so I continued holding the expectation that he would go.
I checked in with my best thinking using a Listening Partnership, which is a way to address what’s going on in your head, check biases from your own upbringing, and experience the kind of emotional support that you’d like to offer your child. There are many places to find a parent who might like to do a free exchange of listening time with you, including this group, and the process is simple. Having the space to clear out how you feel about limits in general, and to offload the feelings you have about the particular expectation you want to hold for your child, will help you get comfortable with setting the limit. Listening Partnerships give you a place to feel heard and held.
Here are some ideas to experiment with in your listening time when you are working on holding an expectation.
A Listening Partner role models holding an expectation for you
A good place to begin with this is by sharing where you have difficulties meeting expectations in your own life. Taxes? Folding clothes? Being on time?
Ask your listening partner to hold the expectation that you are working on: “It’s time to do your expense sheet now.” Their role is to help you find the exact feelings that underlie your resistance. It’s not to make you do the thing you resist!
Then you can say all the things you want to say, without any censorship:
“I don’t want to!”
“You do it for me!”
“I’ll do it later!’
Your listening partner can just listen with a full attention or if it is helpful, they can offer a phrase (You can set this up before your listening time begins.) Try, “It’s time to do it now,” or “Expense sheet!” or “I am sure you can do it… and right now show me how hard it is.”
You will notice feelings bubbling up–you might feel embarrassed, guilty, insulted…the possible reactions are countless! If you feel safe enough, you will release the tension you feel in laughter, a tantrum, a light sweat, or in crying about how overwhelmed or exhausted you feel.
Once you have processed those feelings, go a bit deeper. Have them ask, “Tell me the first time you did not like doing things you are supposed to.”
There’s nothing like putting yourself in another’s shoes to build empathy, and this time, you get to see the world from your child’s point of view. You also get to experience the kind of limit setting that involves meeting expectations with a listener’s support. You’ll have a loving reminder of the expectation and permission to process feelings in the presence of caring person.
This makes it a whole lot easier to offer similar permission to your child.
Offload your feelings about your child’s behaviors in your Listening Partnership
You can also ask your listening partner to role-play your resistant child, and then let loose with all the reactions you have inside. This gives you a chance to start processing them.
If Setting Limits This Way Feels Hard, That’s OK
Many of us may have a hard time imagining what calmly and warmly holding an expectation looks like because it is such a departure from the way we were raised. It’s natural to feel difficulty trying to do something we haven’t experienced. Your listening partner can model what you may have a hard time imagining, by role-playing setting a loving limit with you, or around the tasks your child resists.
A Unique Way to Set Limits That Kids Really Listen To
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Set The Limit When Things Are Calm
And so, with groundwork laid, you can begin work on your child’s refusal. Begin by setting the limit when things are calm, and you feel well resourced. Announcing the expectation may sound like, “We will go to your school after Special Time and breakfast, at 8 am.”
When we announce the limit ahead of time it gives a useful window.
If your child says “Sure!” and they can agree at least then, you might talk about ways that make it easier. “I noticed it was hard for us to get ready, what can I do for you so you can enjoy your preschool tomorrow?”
If they get upset about the very thought of the expectation, they are ready to work on the tension they carry.
You can choose to help them there and then. A first step might be a playful intervention. With a child that resists the idea of going to their preschool, you could playfully say, “I don’t want to either! Let’s stay here and snuggle forever and ever. No bathroom break, no lunch break, just snuggle and snuggle and snuggle,” and give them a snuggle.
Watch how they respond. If your child responds to your playful approach with a smile or laughter, keep going. This loosens up the stuck feelings and sheds a little light on them, so when you hold the expectation next time it might not feel so stark.
When your child’s feelings are really stuck, they may get agitated or upset at the mention of your expectation, or in response to your Playlistening. In that case, switch to Staylistening, where you stay close and listen quietly and with caring while your child rails and cries about the expectation.
Hold the Expectation That The Request Will Happen
The image I use in my mind during this process is of the child digging a tunnel through a sand dune. Their job is to keep digging (shedding their feelings) until they get through the tunnel and out into the light. My job as the parent is to hold the flashlight, showing them, “This way! You can make it to the other side.”
Now comes what you have no doubt been waiting for. Setting – and holding – a limit.
The process is essentially the same whichever limit you want to hold.
- Move in close and set the limit, warmly and firmly, using eye contact.
- Listen to your child’s feelings
- Re-state the limit, calmly.
Here are a few examples.
Holding an Expectation Around Taking a Bath:
You did the groundwork. You are quite certain that you want a bath to happen, and you are clear on your reasons why. You both agree your child will take a daily bath, but when you tell your child that it’s bath time, they protest. You listen for a minute. Then you come close, hold their hands, make eye contact and point to the direction of the bath. “Time for a bath,” you say. Then you listen to their upset, making sure they don’t distract themselves with another activity. “Nope, no coloring now. Bathtime.”
Holding an Expectation Around Brushing Teeth:
If your child has agreed to a morning and evening brushing, you can show the toothbrush and say, “Ready? Time to brush.” If they flail, sit quietly with them, with the toothbrush and toothpaste. When the crying or tantrum slows down, bring the child’s attention back to the expectation, “Time to brush your teeth.”
If your child gets upset or cries because of your expectation, you know that they are shedding the feelings that cause them to react. . It’s a sign that there’s something good taking place. Tension releases. Your caring pours in. It takes time, but you’ll get results!
Calm and Helpful Responses to Use When Your Child Says No
When the expectation is held with kindness, your child’s job is to show you fully how they feel inside. All you need to do is to give your child your time and your presence. These are some steps to consider when your child cannot meet the expectation after they have initially agreed, and when they have begun to cry or get angry.
1) Listen with your eyes as much as your ears and try to offer your whole presence.
2) Make sure everyone stays safe. If your child attacks the toilet tissue and tears it up, for instance, you can regard this as a safe way for them to express their feelings, but picking up a chair with the intent to throw it needs to be stopped. Tell them immediately, “No, I can’t let you do that. Not safe.” Stop them quickly but calmly, with your body.
3) Check internally if you have the time and patience to keep Staylistening. If you do, use Step 4, if not, skip to Step 5.
4) As your child’s outrage calms, gently remind them of your expectation. This is not to win their immediate compliance, but is an invitation to them to keep sharing how they feel about it. Your gentle reminder guides your child’s mind to refocus on the feelings that cause their resistance.
The image I use in my mind during this process is of the child digging a tunnel through a sand dune. Their job is to keep digging (shedding their feelings) until they get through the tunnel and out into the light. For them to get to the other side, my job is to hold the flashlight, showing them, “This way! You can make it to the other side.”
Your child does the work while you support them and show them the way.
Each time they work on these feelings they make it farther through the dune. They may regain their talent for cooperation within one Staylistening session, or it may take a few different times of shedding feelings while you hold the expectation. All work shedding feelings is good work. If the dune always stays undug, your child will continually try to avoid it, and their resistance to the task will remain. They will take a very very long time to reach “the light.”
5) If you find yourself out of time and patience, stop your Staylistening. Rest assured that you have helped your child begin breaking down the resistance they feel to the task and that you will return to that work the next time you hold the expectation on the limit.
6) Whenever your child works on their resistance, watch to see how they express their feelings physically. Yawning, crying, laughing, sweating, moving their body around and even saying mean things are signs that they are digging deeper through the sand dune. Once their tunnel is in place, their resistance disappears. When you hold the expectation in the future, they’ll move freely through the open tunnel to fill your request.
7) Remind yourself that this way of setting limits is not about compliance. You did not fail or do something wrong if your child’s crying doesn’t immediately give way to compliance, although that may happen sometimes. How long it takes for your child to dissolve his emotional reaction to your expectation depends on the depth of feelings or fears they have about what you want them to do. In my case, I had to work on the same issue with my son for days, even weeks, and once or twice, when his fears were deeply held, for months. Always, after a groundshaking show of feelings, things shifted.
For example, when it was time to leave the house for the preschool as we had agreed, my son would not put on his socks, or he would drag his feet all the way. These signs showed me that we need to pause the “going-to-preschool” protocol so I could pivot, move in, and connect by offering eye contact and my full attention.
I laid some more groundwork by starting our morning routine 20 minutes or so earlier.
Not having to rush helped me to stay calm and patient. When I said, “It’s time to put on your socks,” I held the socks.
This is often the moment I started hearing voices in my head, saying things like, “We agreed to do this yesterday, and if you don’t we will be late!” or “Son, if you don’t put these on, you won’t get your….”
These are often things we heard growing up, or we hear others say. But these are not helpful motivators, so I held back.
I sat down and held the sock in my hand and stayed there while my child cried and protested. He squirmed but I stayed with him, holding his little body in my arms.
He would say, “No! I don’t want to!” and I would say, “I know you don’t. You can put on a sock. Let’s do it – here I come!”
I didn’t force the socks on, but suggesting it and gauging my son’s reactions guided me to what he needed.
Holding an Expectation When Others are Listening
When there are other adults involved, it can get tricky. This kind of waiting for a child to work through their feelings with a few words here and there from the parent can be highly frustrating for grown-ups. If their idea of an outcome means fulfilling the expectation – in my case this would have looked like getting out the door without fuss and skipping off to preschool – my “long term view” approach did not appear to be “working.”
My mother would watch me and get upset. Luckily, we were on the same page about sending him to the preschool, and so I would say, “Thanks for your concern, but I can handle it. He’s working very hard to get to a space where he can enjoy his school. I have seen him work through some hard things before. It will be OK.”
When Will a No Become Yes? Seeing the Shift
We worked on him not wanting to go to preschool for several mornings, often arriving late,with an impatient brother tagging along glumly. And then one morning his father Staylistened to our son’s vigorous crying and struggles. My son got sweaty and cried hard with lots of wild movements. Then he fell asleep.
We decided that it was so late for preschool, and he wouldn’t go. But when he woke up, he opened his eyes and he said, “I am ready.” From that day on, he went to preschool every day with little resistance.
A couple of years later, he experienced a similar fear response about starting Kindergarten, and I listened to his feelings in very much the same way. He refused and refused to go, but after a long and deep cry and struggle with me listening to him one morning, he was able to start going to school happily and willingly.
I still don’t know what he was afraid of or he was working on emotionally, but I know that after he worked hard on his emotions, he has been able to function extremely well in a school setting.
What To Do If The Problem Behavior is Persistent
When the problem behavior is persistent, it can be a good strategy to take a break and come back to the issue later, if you possibly can. For example, if getting to school in the morning is challenging, try fixing your schedule so that you can take a wellness day with your child and spend a connecting day together without going to school.
Responding With Care When Your Child Still Says No
Use your time to play, have fun, and lay a little extra groundwork. To find out what might be underneath their behaviors, consider:
1) Your Child: When does your child does want to go to school? Is it about missing you? Is there something that your child doesn’t like at school? Are there health or learning concerns that have not been addressed? Did something change in your child’s life recently?
2) How about you? What comes up for you when they don’t want to go? Is it hard kissing your baby goodbye or seeing her grow up? Did you like going to school, or do you have less-than-sunny remembrances? How did the adults in your life respond when you did not want to do things?
Once you have reconsidered and reconnected, you’ll be ready to start the process once again. Your child can go back to digging through their sand dune – and sooner or later, you’ll both scamper through that tunnel and into less resistance and more fun.