Dealing Successfully with Unresponsiveness
By John Townsend, Ph.D.
What can you do if you see that your child is not responding after your repeated requests to get dressed, or to eat, or to get ready to go or to stop doing what he’s doing? I don't want to lose my cool, but consequences don't seem to motivate him to follow my requests.
What’s that all about when a mom asks her child to do something perfectly reasonable in a calm and loving tone of voice and explains the logic and reason for doing so, and then her child doesn’t respond? There are few things more frustrating and wearying than a kid who ignores your requests to stop or start doing something. And to top it off, consequences don’t seem to motivate him or her either. Let’s look at what’s going on and provide some solutions.
Normalize it. A lot of this unresponsive behavior is normal for school age kids. Children at this stage are doing a lot of developmental tasks while at the same time finding their “no” muscle so they can hopefully learn to make good and healthy choices later in life. They’re also working out their relationship with you so they will learn to stay connected while still being separate and increasingly autonomous from you. And they’re experiencing some good old-fashioned rebellion. Not all of that is good, but all of this behavior is normal. So give yourself a break. You don’t have a weird child. You have a normal child. And you can be a great mom!
Cover the bases. Make sure you’ve clearly explained your expectations in behavioral and simple terms, so that your child understands what you want with no confusion: “Abby, get dressed in five minutes, here’s the timer” is better than saying, “Put your clothes on now!” When kids hear “now” 10 times a day, they eventually filter it out. Also, cover your bases by telling your child why this is important. It will help her understand why she’s supposed to do something: “Because I said so” is not as helpful as, “Because I won’t be able to get you to school on time, and that’s important to me and to you too.”
Explain the consequences of disobedience. If covering the bases is not working, then tell your child that the next incident will result in a consequence. Tell him this ahead of time so that he has time to modify his behavior: “Spencer, the next time you don’t get dressed in the time I ask you to, I will do x.”
And ‘x’ is always something in one of two groups: removing something your child loves (DS, video, TV, play time, friends over, favorite foods) or adding something your child dislikes (extra chores taking care of the dog, extra table setting, extra cooking with Mom, extra cleaning up the house). You should remove what’s desired or add what’s undesired.
This step takes some thought and reflection and knowing your child. So many frustrated parents come to me and say, “Consequences don’t work.” But when we examine what’s happening, that’s not the case. It’s usually one of several things: (1) a consequence that your child doesn’t care about anyway; (2) a power struggle in which she wants to show you that she can wait you out; (3) a tolerance buildup, like an alcoholic does, so that she’s OK at the current level of loss. In this third case, it may be time to escalate the consequence to defeat the tolerance. For example, Abby doesn’t lose TV for a day, she loses it for two days. And, there is the possibility that you’re being inconsistent too. When you threaten in frustration and then don’t follow through consistently, or when you only deliver the consequence when you’re angry or when you don’t deliver the consequence because you feel guilty or sad, your child becomes confused and just ignores the rules. My and Henry Cloud’s books Boundaries with Kids and Raising Great Kids have more in-depth information on these issues.
These suggestions solve the great majority of problems with nonresponsiveness in kids. However, if things still aren’t working, then do the following: Check in with a wise friend to see if your child is suffering from a lack of love and warmth from you that can cause ignoring rules and requests. If that’s not the case and you and your child are truly bonded and attached, you may need to take him or her to a child psychologist because something deeper and more serious may be going on, such as depression, anxiety, a learning disorder or ADHD.