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How to Get Your Child to do Something They Don’t Want to Do

Feb 26, 2020
Valerie Levine and Sasha Yazdgerdi
unhappy child
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If you’re like most of us, a predictable task that is completed every day at the same time is much easier than a spur-of-the-moment change of plans or receiving an urgent last-minute demand. Your child is no different than us and, additionally, is still developing the skills to refocus and follow through with accepting the new directions. You’re not alone when you find yourself repeating even the simplest requests – but let’s all agree that even adults don’t always want to get out of bed in the morning!

Creating a routine and instilling a repeated practice can aid in increased motivation and willingness to adapt. The more you inform your child and remind them of what upcoming chores or needs there are in the near future, the better they will be equipped to prepare themselves to cooperate.

When you find yourself up against behavior that looks like stubbornness, arguments, or tantrums, try these tips for success:

1. Motivation. This is key. Your task as the parent is to figure out how to increase your child’s motivation to do what you tell them to do. Is there a specific candy or snack they absolutely love? Is there a video game they can’t live without? Ask yourself, “What will my child work for?” Ensure that you have those items on hand at all times and control how much access they have to it. You will want to limit their access in order to increase the motivation to work for that item. This tip is number 1 for a reason; it’s so important for the child to know what they could potentially earn for doing what you say. If you set up what they are working for beforehand (not out of desperation in the moment they won’t do it!), this is using motivation for positive reinforcement (not bribery!). 

2. Visual supports. As parents, we find it much easier to verbally tell our children what we are doing that day or what they need to do, but ‘in-one-ear-and -out-the-other’ is a real thing. It takes us 10 seconds to tell our child something to do, but can’t it take perhaps 45 minutes of repeating and reminding to actually have them complete the request? It is very easy to not fully understand or remember what was said. Having a visual reminder allows your child to focus and educate themselves on what is needed. Just like we add post-it notes to our fridge or computer, a picture of a shower with a 7:00 PM sticker is a great way to communicate and remind your child that every day at 7:00 PM it is shower time. If there are multiple steps in a routine, it can be a great help to have a picture or a written word in the order of steps. 

3. Reminders.  Before the task starts, provide verbal reminders about what is about to happen. This can be a simple “hey buddy, shower time starts in 5 minutes!” Or perhaps on the car ride to school, you could remind your child about what is happening later that day: “Remember, after school, we will stop at Grandma’s and then go to your sister’s soccer practice – what will you earn for following your rules?”

4. Timers. We love using timers for a few reasons. It signals to everyone that something is about to change – whether to start or to stop. Timers can be used to notify children when it’s time to clean up for dinner, to start homework, to get ready for bed, etc. Timers can also be used to signal the end of an event. For example, for children who have sensitivities to an activity, such as hair brushing, you can use a timer to allow them to know how long the activity will last – and to know the end is near! For example, let the child know you are brushing her hair for 30 seconds, and show her as you set the timer. Prop the timer up so the child can watch the numbers and you both can count down with it. When the timer goes off, stop brushing her hair. This way the child knew when the end was coming and didn’t think it was endless. Most smartphones have a timer function – so convenient!

5. Priming. Exposing your child to an activity beforehand can help a lot with his or her ability to be able to handle the activity when the time comes. For example, if your child is anxious or resistant to having their hair cut, priming can be done in a number of ways:  talking about having a haircut, looking at pictures and/or videos of different people having their haircut (if it can be you or other family/friends, that’s even better!), and perhaps going to the place where the haircut will be. With priming, you are allowing your child to become familiar with the activity beforehand, and you’re taking away the uncertainty of an unpredictable situation. 

6. Behavioral Contracts. A behavior contract is a fancy term for an agreement, typically written down and signed. It goes through in a bit more detail the expectations of each person, for example, the expectations of both the parent and the child, as well as reinforcement available once complete. Usually both people have input – this helps with the child feeling they have some sense of control and increases their buy-in overall. 

7. Role Play. As it sounds, role playing is acting out a situation or practicing a skill – but an important component of this strategy is having discussion beforehand and afterwards, to identify what you’re focusing on and then what you’ve learned. Role playing helps to prepare a child for the situation, to practice new behaviors, and sometimes it can encourage them to try out different roles and see a situation from a different perspective (social skills!). 

If you still find yourself struggling with behavior challenges, remember you’re not alone. It can be very frustrating, and we can help! Visit to start chatting with a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and devise a plan with supports specially tailored to you and your child!

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