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Why won’t my child listen? Reframing an age-old problem.

Why won’t my child listen? Why is he being so defiant?


Why do I have to ask so many times for her to do what I need her to do?!

Oppositionality is defined as the refusal to conform to the ordinary requirements of authority and a willful contrariness. It often manifests itself during childhood with behaviors such as stubbornness, argumentativeness, tantrums, noncompliance, and defiance. We’ve all been here. Moments like these cause friction and escalation in our homes, can wear on the relationship we have with our children, and leave parents at a loss for how to get their child to comply with requests.

The good news is that some of this behaviour is developmentally appropriate and your child is testing out the boundaries of the relationship- which is their job. They are sussing out evidence for questions like- Is my relationship safe and secure? Can my caregiver endure my acts of protest? Will I still be loved and nurtured in the end?

The bad news is that it’s incredibly frustrating and can bring out the worst in us as parents. Some families can feel swallowed up by their child’s oppositionality and defiance, and at a loss for how to cope. The reality is that our responses to these moments can predict how future moments will go…we may not be the cause of the behaviour (though sometimes maybe we are), but course correction falls squarely on our shoulders.

We need to make SO many requests to keep things on track and our household running smoothly. It’s our job as parents. So, when our kids meet our requests by ignoring, pushing back, or flat our refusal to comply it can leave us feeling ineffective and quite frustrated. But let’s break down what’s happening in this dynamic a little. Once we understand what’s actually happening it can inform what we chose to do about it.


Here a visual of how I think this dynamic goes down in our homes:


Dr. Zia Lakdawalla - Foundations for Emotional Wellness

Sound familiar?

Essentially, when our children are non compliant we have one of two responses, we get more angry and threaten consequences or we withdraw our request and move into negotiation mode. Either way we are sure to be left with two things- feeling ineffective and with our request not met.

Here’s the things about willful and defiant behaviours in our children. They don’t feel good about themselves when they are being defiant. I have never met a content, self assured, and regulated child with a diagnosis of oppositional defiant disorder. Most often, these kids feel misunderstood, unseen, and at times, unsafe. While it might seem like they are choosing to behave in these ways that tends to have chaotic ripples effects in everyone around them- there are many factors at play here. As parents WE are part of the cycle of oppositionality in our children- which can erode the base of the parent child relationship. The very relationship that children require to feeling safe, grounded; and secure in themselves and their place in the family. The relationship that is grounded in respect, acceptance, and unconditional love. Feeling like you are in an endless cycle outlined above can be a sign that it’s time to recalibrate, reassess your approach, and find a different way. No judgment, we have ALL been here.


Tips for course correction: Increasing compliance in my child

What to do OUTSIDE of the hard moments: Your child has not been asked to do anything.

In my clinical experience, the most effective way to target defiance in children is fairly easy to do, but does require some daily effort and commitment. It is a well researched and clinical validated intervention called child directed play. See my article for a description and clear instructions on this topic. This is a direct way to increase the connection between you and your child, which over time, indirectly affects their behaviour and compliance. It helps children to feel valued, respected and cared for; and it helps us to see the good in them and their capacity to make good choices. After all- we are the mirror that our kids see themselves though. If we believe in them and their abilities to make good choices they are more likely to show that side of themselves to us. Conversely though, if we reflect back the negative stuff by making assumptions about their intentions, jumping to conclusions and getting frequently frustrated they will also show us more of that.

What to do inside of hard moments: You have made a request and your child is being willful.

  1. Regulate yourself first. Breathe, stay calm, have a calming mantra “This is hard, I can handle it.”
  2. Be clear in your communication and expectations. “Please take your lunchbox out of your backpack and empty the containers.”
  3. Follow with a “When/Then” statement. “When you have completed this, you can go play outside before dinner.”
  4. Validate resistance and communicate your belief that they will make a good choice. “I know! Its frustrating to have to unpack your lunch from your lunchbox, and I think you are going to make a good choice.”
  5. If your child complies, acknowledge it – but not over the top. “Thanks bud- appreciate your help pitching in”.
  6. If they don’t comply – keep at it, don’t give up! Resist the urge to give a consequence- you are more likely to keep yourself in the cycle above! You may just need more time to seal up cracks, and increase the connection with your child to shift the cycle. Play, be clear, and catch them when they DO comply.


Dr. Zia Lakdawalla - Foundations for Emotional Wellness

Dr. Zia Lakdawalla

I am a registered clinical psychologist who specializes in working with children, adolescents, and parents. My goal is to help clients cope with uncomfortable feelings, improve relationships, and increase competency and efficacy in managing the demands of each new stage of development. I am also a strong believer that the environment in which kids are immersed is a critical factor in how they learn to regulate their emotions and build resilience.
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