Why is my child not cooperating

“I don’t want to eat this.”

“Can I not go to school today? I don’t feel like going.”

Familiar scenarios? It’s often a tug-of-war or a battle of wills when it comes to getting our kids to do what we want. It’s not that they don’t want to, or they are lazy or stubborn — it’s just that they are programmed very differently from us adults.

“To expect our 5-year-old to think like a 30-year-old is not fair,” says Rachna Agarwal, a psychotherapist and a counsellor at Human Trilogy

Photo: Rachna Agarwal

“A child is born as an empty slate and there are no programs written on it. They download 95 per cent of the programs from their surroundings in the first 7 years, which is called the imprint period.” It’s only after the imprint period that their conscious mind kicks in and personalities start taking shape.

Things are not always as simple as they seem

But why do some children find it difficult to wake up in the morning for school?

Sarah N, a mother of a 6-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son, chalks it up to her daughter probably “needing more sleep”.

However, this may not be the case. Many children struggle with waking up early for school due to a combination of several factors, such as emotional factors, anxiety related to school, homework, tests, or social interactions that can disrupt their morning routine.

They may get insufficient sleep due to excessive screen time or late-night activities. Sometimes environmental factors such as noise, light, and temperature in the child’s sleeping environment can also impact sleep quality. It is therefore important for us as parents to recognize and address the factors that lead to their sleep disruption.

A child primarily uses the emotional part of their brain

A child is born with a pre-frontal cortex that does all the logical thinking, but another part of their brain which controls their behaviour is the amygdala, which processes fear and other emotions.

Rachna explains: “The emotional part of the brain develops much earlier than the pre-frontal, and this is where parents struggle, as we think from the logical part of the brain and children think from the emotional part of the brain”.  Research shows that the pre-frontal cortex in a person develops only by the age of 25.

The emotional part of the brain develops much earlier than the pre-frontal, and this is where parents struggle, as we think from the logical part of the brain and children think from the emotional part of the brain.

Rachna Agarwal, psychotherapist and counsellor at Human Trilogy

According to Rachna, emotional development serves as the centrepiece for both cognitive and social growth. The emotional well-being of a child plays a vital role in their overall development. It fuels cognitive growth, nurtures positive social interactions, fosters a love for learning, and equips them with the skills to navigate life’s challenges successfully.

The need to recognise strengths and foster independence

Studies have shown that a happy child eagerly looks forward to studying, exploring and learning.

Often parents expect more from their children in terms of achievements.  However, they need to understand that each child is a distinct individual, and what proves effective for one may not be suitable for another. Every child possesses a unique personality and strength, making them an outlier in their own way.

Parents need to recognize their specific interests, talents, learning styles, and temperament. As Rachna says: “Effective communication, adaptability, and flexibility in parenting strategies are crucial”.

As children grow they seek autonomy and independence. In such situations, the parents’ role is to encourage age-appropriate decision-making and respect their children’s autonomy.  Accordingly, create an environment where each child feels valued and supported in pursuing their passion.

How can we build a strong bond?

“Parenting is a lifelong journey and there’s no right and wrong as every parent has good intentions for their child,” says Rachna. “Apparently, where they fall short is on the approach”.

Listen actively to your child without judgment and understand their perspective. Often, parents make comparisons between siblings or other children. However, it’s best to avoid this, as it may lead to feelings of inadequacy.

Why is my child not cooperating
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For many, parenting can be challenging, so practice patience as building a strong relationship takes time and effort. Therefore, express your love and affection regularly.

When your child makes an effort to achieve a task, acknowledge and encourage them, no matter how small the task is. However, teach them that challenges and mistakes are opportunities for learning and growth.

“The most important principle of parenting is personal development. If we need to bring about a change in our child, it is us who need to change,” says Rachna. If we make a mistake, be willing to apologize and model accountability. This shows your child that it’s okay to admit when you’re wrong.

How often should we offer praise and rewards?

Who wouldn’t like to be praised or rewarded?

“Praise follows the law of diminishing returns — they lose effectiveness when overused,” advises Rachna. “Praise should be implemented in a way that encourages self-motivation and a positive sense of success.  Practice a balanced approach by using a mix of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation that promotes a child’s personal development.”

Sarah agrees with this parenting approach. “It is important to praise our children, but we don’t connect praises with tangible rewards,” she says. “Rather, we find something good that they do in a day and give them more of ‘we’ time as a reward.”

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Although all rewards are not bad, one needs to reduce the use of tangible rewards as children grow. For instance, move from offering a treat for finishing homework to emphasizing the satisfaction of learning and accomplishing tasks. A simple rephrasing can make all the difference.

Suppose a child helps set the table for dinner. Here’s how a balanced approach can be applied:

Praise: “You did a great job setting the table! It’s wonderful how responsible you are.”

Reward: “As a reward for your help, you can choose the dessert for tonight.”

Over time, make the transition from tangible rewards to intrinsic rewards. Say, “You set the table so nicely that it makes our family dinner so special. Thank you.”

Moving away from threats as a disciplinary tactic

Often parents use threats as a disciplinary tactic. Threats do result in immediate cooperation, but they may have negative consequences in the long run.

As Sarah shares, “I don’t like to set threats as a disciplinary tactic, as that may have a bad impact on them. Rather, my husband and I give them very clear instructions and expectations”.

“Genuine moral development is not promoted when children obey out of fear,“ explains Rachna. “Threats also impede learning because they place more emphasis on avoiding punishment”.

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Thus, threats frequently destroy trust and lead to emotional problems like worry and anxiety, which have an adverse effect on a child’s self-esteem and relationship with their parents. So how does it impact a child?

Some children may rebel against threats, feeling a need to assert their autonomy. Fear of punishment can cause anxiety and stress, which can be detrimental to a child’s mental and emotional well-being.

With that in mind, there are ways to transform threats into encouragement instead. According to Rachna, “key guidelines involve maintaining composure in challenging situations, using positive language to express expectations and consequences thereby setting clear expectations”.

For example, instead of a threat like: “If you don’t finish your vegetables, you’re grounded!” You can try encouragement: “Let’s try to eat some veggies together, and afterwards, we can have some dessert as a treat.

Another example of a threat: “If you don’t stop fighting with your sister, I’m cancelling our outing.” This can be replaced with encouragement such as “I know you both want to have a fun outing. Let’s work out a way to get along so we can still go.”

Similarly, instead of threatening to take away a child’s phone if they don’t finish their homework, remind them that finishing early will give them more free time to enjoy screen time afterwards, then offer help if needed.

Open and effective communication is always important in parenting strategy. Treat your children fairly and equally in terms of love and opportunities to foster their growth and cooperation — and you’ll foster a much better relationship with them as a result.