10mins read

We have all been there – we need to get our kids to do or eat something that we know is good for them but they point blank refuse. They start with begging and negotiation. Then blackmailing (both emotionally and physically) – ‘you CAN’T make me’, ‘I will NOT go’ or ‘why are you so mean to me’, ‘I don’t have to go’, ‘you don’t love me’, ‘you think I’m stupid’ and so on. Ending with a full-blown tantrum, resistance or refusal.

And just like the Duracell bunny they keep going, on and on and on! Using different strategies and techniques – until we have run out of energy and patience and end up giving in, giving up, screaming/shaming or criticising. Maybe we join their negotiation battles by trying to get the LAST word. Either way, we have lost. We have lost it.

Wow! Aren’t our kids clever? Aren’t they amazing small scientists? Always exploring, finding alternatives, seeking new ways to get what they want or get out of what they don’t want!

It might feel that the more we try to make them care the less they do. But we can’t MAKE someone care – they have to want to.
But what if there was a different way for us to help kids stay motivated and do what is THEIR responsibility, without all these struggles? What if it was so simple, what if all they needed to know is WHAT their responsibility is, understand WHY it is important, feel that they CAN do it (HOW to) and stay MOTIVATED (WANT) to do it.

The math is: WHAT + WHY + HOW = CAN do it / WANT to do it…

Of course our kids will always throw a bit of resistance at us and that is how it should be. And that’s OK, they are just doing their job. But we need to do ours too: to help our kids understand the WHY and HOW of what’s good for them and to deliver this in a calm and respectful way. To be predictable parents by making them aware of why they need to do this and how it can be done, together.

Once we have found a way to ‘work with’ with our kids (not just us telling them) we will find that they are more willing to follow through with what they need to do, for themselves, and what is good for them. They are much more likely to respect you and your decisions because you have explained the why and together found a plan for the ‘how to’. Over time the battles will become less severe and frequent, and you can feel proud of yourself.

And bear in mind that our kids don’t want, and don’t enjoy, these battles either. So your child will feel freer, happier and more content once you have created cooperation and teamwork. You set them up for the future by teaching them how to deal with things in life that they don’t want to do but are good for them. Plus, it really strengthens your relationship with your child when you find a way to work together in a respectful way.

So let’s look at how this can be done:

BEFORE: set the scene at home – explore the WHY and the HOW

Have a chat:

  • ‘Together everyone achieves more’ – Anders Bircow. It is not your way or the highway. No one feels motivated by being told what to do or not do, having fingers pointed at them or feeling threatened. Instead, you want to send a signal to your child that you are on the same ‘team’, THEIR TEAM. To do so you need to make them feel good about you, your bond with them and your request/decision. CLICK here to read more about making your child feel good by ‘decoding’.
  • Why this is important for the child: it is simply not good enough to TELL them what to do with a ‘because I say so’. Your child needs an explanation for WHY they should want to do it, feel motivated and what they will get out of it.
  • Sit with your child and have an open chat about the things they need to do that might seem like a struggle: revision, homework, attending activities, eating dinner, going to bed, going to school, brushing teeth, tidying his room etc. You can ask them WHY they think you ask them to do these things? And keep going from there. We need to brush our teeth because XXX (you can show them pictures of what happens if we don’t brush our teeth). We need to go to school because XX etc. You can tell them why you think it’s good for them: ‘I would like to tell you WHY we/I believe/know this is good for you’…
  • Listen even though you don’t like/agree: At this stage of the conversation it is OK (and quite normal) for your child to state how they feel towards the activity: I hate it, I don’t like it, I think it’s stupid, it’s hard work/boring etc. They CAN feel, but it is up to us to teach them what to do with these feelings. Instead of telling them what to feel, contradicting their feelings or trying to stop their feelings (i.e. don’t be silly, that’s stupid, don’t be angry, calm down, no you are not fat etc.) try to come from a place of LISTENING and UNDERSTANDING. I can HEAR that you are really upset about having to XX and I GET IT, it is not always fun to XX. STOP talking there, we don’t have to fix it, make it better or try to convince them of the opposite. Sometimes, listening IS the right answer and all they need. Listening and understanding is NOT the same as agreeing or giving in. It is just showing respect and empathy. CLICK here to read more about this tool.
  • How to: your child is more likely to want to do what they need to do when they understand the WHY, but they also need to be part of the ‘how to’ process, what needs to be done and how. Where possible, let them have a say – so they feel some level of choice and control – and are not just being told what to do: ‘So we have agreed that brushing your teeth is good for YOU and something you have to do – let’s talk about HOW you can get it done’. Let them be part of creating a routine/pattern or structure that they are happy with, keeping the end result in mind of brushing their teeth. They can be part of the process, how they get there. Maybe your child wants to put on her PJs or hear a story first and then brush her teeth. Maybe they want to be part of buying a new toothbrush and choosing the toothpaste etc. The same goes for going to school, let them create a routine with the tasks that need to be done. They can also be part of meal planning and cooking – give them realistic options to choose from, not just ‘What do you want to eat?’, and offer them healthy choices. This way they feel some level of control but also, they understand HOW to get it done, how to get there – they feel more capable etc. Remember this is not about being open to negotiation on what is good for them, BUT they can still be part of the HOW TO process. CLICK here for more routine charts
  • Rewards and motivation – what do they get out of it or obtain: This is a topic I am really hot on. If we over reward our kids for things that are good for them then we teach them to do things for others rather than for themselves. Plus we instil a ‘What do I get if?’ mentality, where they can’t do anything without getting something. CLICK here to read about ‘Should I give my kids exams gifts’. Here I talk about when my son was doing his GCSEs and he asked me, ‘What do I get if I get As?’, to which I replied ‘You get As’, he then said ‘Yes but what will you give me?’, and so I told him he would get ‘the opportunity to go to the best university’. When we reward our child the ‘right’ way we teach them to stay motivated to do what they might not want to do since the end result IS THE REWARD for them. They learn to reward themselves, to wait to achieve and benefit. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t help your child stay motivated with healthy rewards. You can talk about short, middle and long term rewards. Let’s talk about going to extra tutoring for instance. The short-term rewards could be ‘after your tuition class we can go and play in the park’. The middle-reward could be ‘at the end of the month we can have a movie night, go to a café etc’. The long-term goal can be for when it is all done: ‘when you have done the exam we can go out for dinner and to the movie afterwards’ or the funfair, or something a bit bigger. CLICK here to read more about: Rewards that are healthy for body and mind.

DURING (in the moment):

Carry out the request and what you have agreed:

Now that you know that your child KNOWS why they have to do and HOW they have to do it, it is up to you to stick to it.

  • Control yourself: I get it, our kids’ resistance and requests can really bring out BIG emotions in us that make us say and do things we can regret later on i.e. shame, blame, criticise or maybe even get physical. So, it’s important that we check in with ourselves and get control of these emotions BEFORE we enter the situation. So from now on allow yourself to STOP and BREATHE before you do or say anything. Before you attend to your child’s request, behaviour, words or attitude. Just STOP and BREATHE. Tell yourself that it is OK to have these emotions but not OK if they control what you do and say next, or how you parent. THINK: our kids CAN have a reaction to our requests and they CAN grieve for what they cannot have or do. And that’s their emotion, not ours. CLICK for a tool that will help
  • Be prepared: if you know that your request to your child will bring out big emotions in your child, prepare yourself for them. This way you are less likely to be taken by surprise and let your emotions control how you deal with a challenging situation.
  • Less is more: no one will remember WHAT you said or DID – but everyone will remember HOW you did it and HOW you made them feel. So try not to use LOTS of BIG words to convince your child to go and do something or eat something. You have already agreed to the ‘why they need to do it’ and ‘how to do it’, all you need to do now is stay calm and stick to it. When you use too many words you are in danger of saying things you regret later. Plus you open up the door to more negotiation, as long as you talk, so will they! Furthermore it sounds like you are trying to convince them about your decision – so it is actually less convincing. Say what you need to say, listen, understand and acknowledge their reaction and then STOP there. Ignoring at this point might help. CLICK here to read about ‘choose your battles, ignore the rest’.
    Act with confidence: Our kids will tune into our emotions by observing our body language and use this to their full advantage, so I recommend that you CLICK here to read about ‘how to not only act with confidence but to feel more confident in your role as a parent’.
  • Catch them being good: It is so easy to fall into the trap of commanding them to get things done. Reminding them. Nagging at them or maybe even criticising, blaming and becoming a nagging martyr. Why do I have to tell you every time? When will you get it? I can’t believe that you are still not getting it? I can’t believe you are still not ready? Why do you never listen to me? And so on. But remember, what we choose to focus the most on we will cultivate and grow. So, try to place more attention and focus on when they DO do something well, even the small steps are important. Notice every small thing that your child is doing that is NOT wrong. Show them that you notice by paying attention to it. It doesn’t have to be big words or actions, just small ways of showing that you NOTICED it and that you liked it. A smile, a physical touch, your time (read a book, sit next to them and show an interest in what they are doing) or simply say it. We don’t have to say ‘thank you’ for doing something that is good for them, but we can say that we ‘noticed that you xx’ and how it makes you feel. Other words to use: I really liked when you xx. I appreciated that xx. I noticed that you tried so hard there, you must be so proud of yourself. Once you start shifting your attention to more positive energy your child is more likely to want to repeat it and maybe do better since they felt noticed and appreciated for every effort, even the small things.
  • Step by step praise and have positive explanations: an alternative to nagging and commanding is to guide your child towards the end result with your positive expectations – where you place more energy and focus on the process then the result. Every time you see your child is making an ‘attempt’ or ‘move’ (no matter how small, i.e. looks at the toothbrush, moves towards the door, looks at you, picks up the pen, smells the food or just comes to the table, GET IN THERE and use this positive move to your advantage: ‘Sam, I noticed that you are about to pick up your toothbrush to brush your teeth – I appreciate that you are sticking to what we agreed – amazing’. ‘Jen, I see you are already heading towards the door to go to school – wow you are so quick today, we might even have time to read about xx together before you go in’. etc. John, it’s great that you are looking at me when I’m talking. This shows that you understand that you need to xx – well done’. This way you motivate your child to do what is expected of them in a positive and encouraging way because they feel trusted.


AFTER: Reconnect

The most important bit is to re-engage and bond afterwards.

  • Reconnect after a battle or resistance: when the child has calmed down – get in there and give your child your time and attention. A little hug. A smile. A squeeze on the shoulder. Small things but they are HUGE. It sends a signal that you are both OK – that you are STILL connected. That you DO still love your child. This gives the child the confidence to move forward and try again instead of feeling battered, shamed or lost afterwards.
  • Forgive and move on: I know that your child’s refusal and constant negotiation can bring out big emotions that are difficult to let go of. But again, we need to do our job, which is to show our child that we are willing to move forward. So, when your child HAS eaten his dinner, has DONE her homework or come out from tutoring or school – get in there and connect, re engage. Move on, forgive and forget. Again, we show them with our body and mind, ‘this is what we like and want to see more of’.
  • Let them get it wrong: Failure helps kids to learn and is not a negative thing. It is an opportunity to try again a different way, and an opportunity to start again. Failure, with backup, helps kids become resilient! There is a reason that the saying goes: ‘there is no failure, only success and learning’. And the thing is, no one goes through life stress free. We can’t protect them forever and it’s better for them to learn how to deal with the ‘bumps’ in life while they are with us in a safe environment, and know that they have a place to go when life gets tough. So trust them that they can deal with it! And try not to fight their battles: We don’t like to see our kids upset and it gives us a heavy heart so sometimes we try to fight their battles for them or give explanations for their behaviour or try too hard to make them do what needs to be done. We might redo their homework because we know they will get in trouble. Or pack their PE bag so they don’t get told off. Give excuses to the teacher why little Johnny has not done XYZ to avoid being told off. You get the idea! The best thing we can do here is to have a conversation with our child and help them solve things themselves with active problem solving: ‘what can you do differently next time?’ and acknowledge that they are upset, ‘yes I can see you are really upset that you got told off’. CLICK here to read about ‘Helping our Kids Problem Solve’. The most important part of allowing our kids to fail: Be there for them when they fail without judgement or, ‘I told you so!’. Be the solid rock that awaits them with open arms, no matter what. This lets them know that it’s ok to fail as long as we are aware of it, willing to admit to it, give it another go and open to trying something new next time. Once we have offered them our empathy (not sympathy, where we feel sorry for them, but when we understand what they are going through) we can guide them towards problem solving and how to get a better outcome next time.
  • Allow natural consequences to happen: if you have done all the above and your child still resists and refuses – make it their problem. Allow them to make their choices and face the consequences: Let them know the consequences of their behaviour or choice of action i.e. if you choose not to do your homework this is what will happen. If you choose not to go to tutoring this is what will happen. You can let the teacher know that you have tried hard to motivate and support the child and if they fail to meet the expectations, then the school is free to set their own consequences. Of course there are times where we need to intervene i.e. we cannot allow ‘if you don’t brush your teeth they will rot’. Here we need to set ‘logical’ consequences: ‘if you choose not to brush your teeth we can’t have sugar any more’ or, ‘if you refuse to get up in the morning you will need to go to bed earlier because you are too tired’ etc.
  • Don’t take it personally and make it your ‘fault’: I often used to feel that my kids were ambassadors for me; when they went out in the ‘real’ world and did well, I felt proud. When they got it wrong, misbehaved etc. I felt guilty that I had done a bad job and failed them. But getting it wrong is part of growing up and something all kids must do and try. Yes sometimes we might think ‘Hmmm I need to work on Sam’s attitude’ etc. But try not to make it about YOU and take it personally. When we do so we are more likely to go into fixing mode and try to make it better and maybe take away an important learning opportunity for our child. Instead, stay curious not furious (at your child and you) and have a think: is this just ‘normal’ growing up, a stage etc., or do I need to modify the way I parent here?

CLICK here fore more on this topic

Best wishes,
Mette Theilmann – Director of Predictable Parenting and founder of  the Parenting Community team