Managing the Difficult Child:
The Child Who Refuses to Cooperate

by Warren P. Silberstein, M.D.

What do you do when a child refuses to cooperate with your rules? You've told him one hundred times not to do something and he still does it. Or you tell him he can't do something and he defies you. These are the kinds of situations that make parents' blood boil. It can escalate into something ugly and even dangerous. The first and most difficult thing to do is to remain calm. A parent who can't control himself cannot control his child or be in control of a situation. Remember that while your blood is reaching the boiling point, your child's may be also. Once that happens your child is no longer thinking clearly. Most efforts at talking and teaching will be for naught. You must defuse the situation as calmly and rationally as possible. To find a compromise with your child that will get the situation under control is not giving up control. You don't have to win every battle to win a war. After the situation is finished and everyone is calm there will be time to talk about the situation and to agree on a consequence (not necessarily punishment) for what happened.

If a child is regularly difficult or defiant it is best to recognize that there will be occasions when you will not get him to do as you say. The best way to avoid constant arguments and threats is to use a system similar to the ones used in residential schools. Set up a board that lists five or more levels of behavior and associated privileges. The middle level should be for acceptable behavior, next level up for effort at improvement, and highest level for exemplary behavior. The level below middle should be for demotion when a child at middle misbehaves while lowest level should be reserved for serious infractions including not complying with the privileges associated with a certain level or demotion for misbehavior after being on the next to lowest level for prolonged periods. Establish rules for what can lower a level or raise a level as well as what behaviors can automatically put a person at a certain level. The highest level should require a minimum length of stay at the level below it. The lowest level should be associated with severe restriction of privileges, while the next level up should be associated with loss of some privileges. The middle level should provide the privileges associated with normal childhood while the next level up could offer additional privileges such as a slightly later bed time, a little more TV, computer time, or video game time. The highest level can offer slightly more expansion of these extra privileges along with bankable points for each day at the highest level, points which can be redeemed for something special at specified intervals. These bankable points should only be lost completely at the lowest level, but some points could be lost to infractions. Other privileges that can be included in the system are telephone time, allowance, time with friends. Loss of privileges can include monetary fines. The most important thing is that it's all spelled out in advance.

The following is a sample board listing levels, requirements to attain a certain level, and privileges associated with a certain level. Both the privileges and requirements will require more detail and changes that would be specific to your rules and lifestyle. Each child should have a marker on the board under his name at his level. The board should be posted where the children can easily refer to it.

Level Requirements Name 1 Name 2 Name 3 Privileges
5 Helpful without being asked. Follows all rules. ...2 hours TV, 2 points/day, 1 hour video games, 1 hour later bedtime
4 Helpful when asked. Follows rules well.


..1½ hours TV, 1 point/day, 3/4 hour video games, 1/2 hour later bedtime
3 Good behavior. Needs reminders to complete chores and follow rules. ..


1 hour TV, 1/2 hour video games, Regular bedtime, Must present acceptable plan for when homework and chores will be done before any play
2 Some misbehavior. Requires frequent reminders to complete chores and follow rules. .


.1/2 hour earlier bedtime,1/2 hour TV, No video games, Must complete chores and schoolwork before play
1 Severe infraction of rules. Unacceptable behavior. Fighting. Refusal to cooperate after warnings. Not complying with privileges for level. ...Grounded: No after school activities,. No telephone, No plans with friends, No TV, Lose all points

Many of the concepts we've discussed previously apply to this more structured approach to behavior management:

  1. Don't have an excessive number of rules. At first, apply this system only to the most important rules. As the children get used to cooperating without constant arguing, renegotiate the requirements for the higher levels.
  2. Encourage your children to reach for higher levels by being quick to recognize their efforts. Avoid keeping children at level two for prolonged times and reserve level one for serious or persistent problems. Success is a great motivator, so if a child constantly strives to raise his level, even if he falls a little short, make level four attainable, but reserve level five for really good cooperation. As time goes by and the children have enjoyed success, redefine your level of tolerance to achieve higher levels.

The key to making this type of system work is communication. Since you will be renegotiating the requirements for each level and tightening how strictly you will adhere to those requirements as time goes by, you will need to discuss these changes with the children. I use the terms renegotiate and discuss, because the children should be allowed to express their opinions and even have some input into the system. To accomplish this, the family should have regularly scheduled meetings. I call this "Family Court." Since meetings of Family Court will be scheduled regularly, there will be an opportunity to discuss problems that arise when the anger and frustration of the moment are past. Emergency meetings should be convened at the request of any family member; however, even emergency sessions will be most effective once things have calmed down enough for cool heads to prevail. At the first session rules should be established for the running of Family Court. At the first and subsequent sessions, a constitution should be drafted which spells out the rights and responsibilities of all family members. I recommend taking notes at these meetings so that issues discussed at previous sessions can be reviewed and progress or the lack of progress on these issues can be further thrashed out. One person should be in charge. Parents can take turns being in charge but only one person should lead a session. When the children have learned the rules of Family Court, it may be appropriate to let them run some sessions as well. The leader of the session's main function is to serve as a moderator. The main rule is that the person who has the floor gets to speak without being interrupted unless he chooses to allow another person to speak during his turn. Since the parents should expect to be able to say what they need to say without interruption, they should allow each child to speak freely at his turn without any penalty for expressing his opinion, as long as he follows the court's rules for decorum and consideration for all present at the court session. This also provides an excellent means for siblings to air their differences, an important issue since fighting among siblings is often a major problem.

Family Court sessions should be used to change levels, and children should be allowed an opportunity to present their case if they feel they deserve a promotion or if they feel mitigating circumstances might prevent a demotion. Good behavior should be rewarded at sessions with discussion and praise as well as promotion. Since consideration of others should be an absolute requirement for higher levels, there should be no risk that the promoted child will gloat. It is also important for parents to express confidence that the other children will be getting their promotions which may provide a good opportunity to tell them how. Court serves as an excellent vehicle for children to renegotiate their rules as they grow old enough to be allowed certain privileges. Each new privilege can have specific new responsibilities associated with it when appropriate.

Family Court is in many ways like a real court; however, you are both the judge and a member of the jury. If a situation arises that would benefit from intervention beyond a level change try to choose an intervention that will teach rather than punish. The level change takes care of the punishment. Extraordinary or persistent problems may require establishment of special rules or penalties, but before establishing penalties, it's always a good idea to discuss these problems. By discuss, I don't mean lecture. You'd be amazed how much a child might tell you about his behavior if he believes someone will really listen. Sure, he may try to snow you, but give him the benefit of the doubt. If he tries snow jobs regularly, you will know, and that will provide an opportunity to discuss issues of trust. When you discuss behavior with your children with the intent of going beyond what was "wrong" or "bad" you can explore alternative ways the problem situation could have played out. That way, the discussion turns into a learning experience where your child may surprise you by coming up with the appropriate behavior himself. After some time and experience with Family Court, your child may even be able to recommend suitable disciplinary action.

For more information check the following article:

Tips for Positive Guidance and Discipline from Infosource provides some worthwhile parenting tips.

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