Episode summary:

Children are wired to resist coercion, especially when most of our interactions are about making a request or demand. In this episode, I answer a parent’s question about how to handle her 12 year old son who accuses her of being grumpy whenever she asks him to turn off the TV to do his chores or homework. 

Susan Stiffelman is a licensed Marriage, Family and Child Therapist, an educational therapist and a highly lauded speaker. She is the author Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected and Parenting With Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (an Eckhart Tolle Edition).Susan offers online events for parents around the world on topics like Raising Tweens and Teens, Parenting in the Digital Age, and Raising Siblings and also hosts a monthly support group with Wendy Behary on Co-Parenting with a Narcissist.​​​​​​​ www.susanstiffelman.com

Things you’ll learn from this episode:

  • Why does it make sense that a child doesn’t want to do his homework or chores

  • Why kids have an instinct to refuse cooperation

  • Why when we come AT our kids–with a demand or a criticism–their instinct to push back is awakened 

  • What it means when a child is continuously oppositional

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Read the entire episode!
Transcript here:


Speaker 1: (00:05)

Speaker 2: (00:13)
Hello and welcome to the parenting without power struggles podcast. I’m Susan Stifelman, I’m your host and I’m very happy that you’re here. So I started out in my career as a teacher and that was actually over 40 years ago. I then went on to become a family therapist and I’ve just worked with families, parents, kids for a long, long time. I’ve pretty much seen it all. And this podcast is my way of sharing with you lots of great information and support whether your kids are a little bitty or or they’re heading off to college today. I thought I would share with you a question that someone wrote in. Remember you can submit a question@susanstifelman.com slash podcast if you’d like me to possibly answer it. And of course if you visit Susan stifelman.com you’ll find out more about special upcoming classes and events, including one on homework with William Sticks, rude and Ned Johnson.

Speaker 2: (01:11)
And you’ll also be able to get the scoop on my monthly parenting without power struggles, membership program, and free newsletter and all kinds of goodies. So you can visit the site there. Here’s the question that this parent wrote in. It may be something that you can relate to, but even if you don’t have this particular problem, hopefully you’re going to hear some information that you can imply in your own parenting life. The question reads this way. My 12 year old son only likes to watch TV and I get mad and I asked him several times to do his chores or his homework and his answer is, why are you so grumpy, mom? I try and explain why he should do the things that I’m asking and it just ends up being about me being grumpy, not him not doing his work. What can I do about this?

Speaker 2: (02:03)
Ah, the good old, reliable, grumpy parents syndrome. It seems to afflict parents, at least according to their kids. Whenever parents, mom or dad asks their child to do something that they’d rather not do. Here’s the thing, when we come at our kids with these requests or demands rather than alongside them, we activate an instinct that’s very deep and very old. So I’m going to explain a little bit about that to you in this episode because it’s really important and it applies not only to young kids, old kids, it can apply to your best friend, your partner, your colleague at work. Human beings are built for survival. This is the bottom line and one of the features of that system is that if you think about a child who still very vulnerable, maybe living in a tribe, because of course that’s how we all started out. Imagine your little three year old wanders to the edge of the territory where your tribe lives and a stranger approaches and the stranger says to your little child, come with me, what do you want your child to do?

Speaker 2: (03:24)
Of course you want your child to say no and to run back to you or to those. To him, he or she is attached. That’s as it should be. Mother Nature as usual knew what she was doing when she embedded within children an instinct to say no outside of attachment. It safeguards their safety and their survival. And it can be terribly inconvenient when you fast forward to present day and you just want your child to turn the TV off and take out the trash. But the same idea applies and this is so essential to the problem that this parent wrote in about and too many of the conflicts that we have with our children. Because you see, when you come at your kids, and if you could see me, you’d see that I’m pushing my two hands together, palm to palm, illustrating this idea of push and push back.

Speaker 2: (04:23)
When you come at your kids by pushing against them, making a demand, offering a criticism, then their instinct is to push back. However, when you come alongside your child and that would look like your hand kind of coming and facing the same direction as your child’s hand, then you have a chance at eliciting cooperation from a genuine place. Not because your children are afraid that you’ll yell at them or punish them or deprive them of something that they want, but because there’s a natural instinct when kids feel seen and connected with you that they want to please you. Now, that doesn’t mean every time, and it doesn’t mean that if your children aren’t turning off the TV or taking out the trash, it’s because they don’t feel close to you. Chances are they also just don’t want to do things that aren’t fun because for better or worse, I think mostly for better kids are wired to prefer fun and enjoyment over checking things off their to do list.

Speaker 2: (05:28)
That’s us that get caught in that web, but kids generally just naturally lean toward doing things that are enjoyable, but when kids are out of connection with us, when too many of the interactions that we’ve had with them are about getting them to do something that they don’t want to do or to stop doing something that they would really like to continue doing, then we, we throw off the balance of that relationship and they’re more to say no to anything that we ask. Sometimes I think of a relationship in these terms. Imagine that you had a cylinder and in that cylinder is a solution and the solution has a ph value and I don’t know too much about chemistry, but I know that much that either the solution is neutral or it’s too acidic or alkaline, maybe not too acidic, but we can have different levels on the Ph, different reeds, and when a solution is highly acidic, you don’t bring it back to neutral.

Speaker 2: (06:35)
By removing acid, you add a base, you add an alkaline, and similarly when your child is routinely defiant, almost always just reflexively says no to anything that you ask. That can be an indication that the relationship is too acidic, that there isn’t enough connection and attachment in the mix and a child’s refusal to cooperate can be. I’m not saying it always is, but it can be a message from the child on some deep level that they don’t feel close. They don’t feel seen, they don’t feel celebrated. They don’t feel enjoyed. That too many of the interactions that you’re having with your kids are about giving them a direction and not about enjoying them delighting and who they are. So back to this question, when a child refuses to do something that this mom is asking, now in this case, we have to also account for the fact that the TV is on, but apart from that kind of hypnotic trance like state that the child’s probably in when he just kind of stares at the screen for many hours.

Speaker 2: (07:49)
There is an element here that might be shifted if the parent invested just a little bit of extra time in more friendly communications. So when I work with parents and I do this a lot in my membership program, I’ll ask them to consider the percentage of interactions that they’re having with their kids that are friendly versus are about asking them to do something or making a demand or criticizing them in some way. And if you see that that percentage of demand is way higher than the percentage of friendly communications or interactions, you might want to consider shifting that so that from time to time you’re making more of an effort to smile at your child, to hug your child, to show interest in what they’re doing, to ask them to teach you something, just to let them know that you are so happy that they are your little one or your big ones.

Speaker 2: (08:51)
So going back to this question, connection is essential and if this mom could invest a little bit of effort and extra time in showing an interest in their child, you know, cooking together, telling jokes, solving a riddle, then the Ph of that relationship would shift. That’s just how it works. I’ve seen this again and again and again and I’ve worked with thousands of families at this point. Now there’s also the issue of the TV and I would just invite this parent to consider that they are the grownup in the room. They are the person in charge, they are the adult. And if you have a child who is getting lost in show after show on TV, it’s actually on you to set some limits, to set some boundaries. And in other episodes you’ll hear me talking at length about how that can happen and what to do when kids push back and all that kind of stuff.

Speaker 2: (09:55)
But today I want to just give you a general idea of what might happen when a parent has a child who’s really habituated to a screen. And particularly today we’ll talk about TV because iPads, phones, video games, computer are really another beast altogether and you can go to my website and you’ll see tons of classes that I’ve done on this with amazing people like Dr Victoria Dunkley and Dan Siegel. And anyway, it’s a lot of stuff is there for you. But today let’s just talk about a child who sits in front of the TV hour after hour. It’s the parent’s responsibility to reset that routine or that expectation on the child’s part to say, sweetheart, this isn’t really working. And I love family meetings for this kind of thing. This isn’t really working that you come home and you have your snack and you plant yourself in front of the TV.

Speaker 2: (10:56)
I absolutely get how much you enjoy that and I’m guessing that if I were to tell you that we’re going to change how that looks, you might get a little bit worried or be kind of mad and you allow your child to express whatever he wants to express and then you in your kindness and your compassionate voice, let him know what you have decided. And in this case, it might be that you’ve decided that after he’s come home and he’s had a snack and he’s played outside and he’s done some a fish chores, he gets an hour of TV or he gets two hours of TV, or I guess I have an hour to be you. You’re going to have to customize this for yourself. I would just urge you to be careful about not knowing where you stand because that’s when things can go south and get ugly and mean between parent and child.

Speaker 2: (11:48)
Get clear and if there’s another parent in the household, try if, and this isn’t always possible to work together to come up with something that you both agree is right and fair for that child. So there’s lots to consider and talk about when it comes to a child who’s refusing to cooperate and of course folding in the TV habit. Um, but let me leave you with a couple of things to consider. The first for this parent is to recognize that it is the parent’s job to decide and determine with the child’s input. Of course what seems right and fair and appropriate given the child’s other responsibilities, how much exercise they’re getting, all kinds of things. Because TV, I don’t have anything against TV in limited amount, but if a child is just not engaging with the world and is only staring at a screen for hour after hour, it’s just not healthy.

Speaker 2: (12:46)
The other thing to consider is to look at the quality of the relationship between parent and child because generally speaking, and there’s lots of exceptions to this, but generally speaking, when kids feel enjoyed seeing and liked by their parent, they do tend to want to please them. They do tend to be more willing to override their preferences to make things work in the family. So here’s the wrap up tip for today, this week. Consider the percentage of interactions that you’re having with your child that are friendly, what I call friendly interactions. Just sort of get a sense of that number and if it’s not very high, if in fact most of the time that your child sees you coming, it’s because they expect rightly expect you to be making a demand or criticizing them or scolding them or telling them to stop doing something they’re having fun doing or to start doing something they don’t want to do. Then work to shift that percentage so that more of the time that you’re approaching your child or with your child, it’s with love, it’s with connection, it’s with enjoyment.

Speaker 2: (14:01)
I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode. Maybe you’ve taken away a tip or two and I encourage you to subscribe to our podcast. That way you’ll find out when I release a new episode, and again, if you can leave a review that’s just wonderful or rating, and if you want more personal support from me, please check out my online parenting without power struggles, membership program, parents pay a small fee and then every month they get to work with me on, on our monthly calls or they can submit a question ahead of time for me to answer. And we have a lot of fun and parents tell me is a huge comfort to know that I’m there for them to turn to if they need advice or support or if they just want to keep learning and growing as they raise their kids. So again, visit Susan stifelman.com and look for the tab that says help for parents. That wraps us up for today. I look forward to joining you on our next episode and meanwhile, remember that no matter how busy life gets, look for those moments of sweetness and joy. Have a good week and I’ll catch you next time.

Speaker 1: (15:10)

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