“My Kid Won’t Listen!” | The Complete Guide to Healthy Cooperation Strategies

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From the minute my kids wake up to the minute they go to bed, we are in an ebb and flow of decision-making, power struggles, and basically, me convincing them to do basic things that keep them alive. 

Whether you need your child to do something they hate or just want to find better, healthier strategies for navigating a child’s resistance, these cooperation strategies are for you. 

From putting on shoes to not touching every glass object in a store, from bedtime cooperation to food fights, these strategies can help with it all. 


The Real Goal

What we want is attitude

I am not talking about our kid saying “fine” and stomping off. Not that kind of attitude.

We need to establish a family attitude of teamwork, service, and respect. 

Instead of trying to simply “get our kids to listen”, let’s focus on the greater goal of developing a home where love compels us to serve each other and work together with an attitude of respect. 

And respect starts with us. Rarely, does my child say something to me that is rude or fresh that I haven’t said to her at some point. 

That being said our children are not adults, they can’t always talk to us the way we talk to them or do things that we do. If they don’t carry the responsibility they don’t always have the freedom. 

Nonetheless, most directions can be said in a strictly respectful manner, and that’s what we want to go for. Ultimately, if a family can be unified in respectful cooperation and service they will be a solid family and a blessing to society. 

Let’s keep our minds long-term focused when getting our children to listen and cooperate. When we develop a purpose within our children of love that serves (and not merely humans that listen), they will see the responsibilities we give them as a blessing. 


Understand The Struggle and The Goal

Children want power and don’t like being told what to do. Who does?

“Like it or not, and perverse as it may seem, the desire for power can be so intense that kids will go to unbelievable lengths to seize it.”-Psychology Today

We can either fight, bully, and manipulate our children against their attempts at gaining power, or we can find healthy ways of directing this desire to become something wonderful. 

And you want your child to want power. Kids who never obtain healthy, limited power become weak, scared, beaten down, and so forth. We don’t want to micromanage them to the point that they don’t learn to think for themselves or develop healthy independence. 

Additionally, we don’t want them to rebel and run away to meet their need for power and independence elsewhere.


Healthy Cooperation Strategies Pin

What You Believe Changes Everything

If you see your child as a stubborn kid wasting time and fighting for no reason then your chances for gaining cooperation respectfully are about over.

Children shouldn’t be seen as a problem to be solved but someone with a problem that they need our help in overcoming.

Children often have less self-control than we wish they would because of their developing brains. Even as adults we don’t always make sensible and mature decisions and we don’t jump at all tasks with a great attitude. 

Although, we often can expect that of our children. If they have shown us once that they can cooperate well, we begin to expect perfection always and that’s unfair. 

Our children don’t want to make our lives hard. They have strong feelings and emotions going on inside them that they have no practice in controlling as it translates to their behavior. So they do some crazy things. 

No matter how defiant your child seems, every kid wants their parent’s approval and acceptance. 


Strong-Willed Disclaimer

Not all of these cooperation strategies will work well, (not immediately anyway), with strong-willed kids. It doesn’t mean they aren’t worth trying but be warned.

My very strong-willed firstborn hated encouragement. It would infuriate her if I encouraged her while she was angry or struggling.

I had to wait for the perfect moments to sneak encouragement in. Eventually, her hatred of help, comfort, and encouragement wore off and I had to reset my brain to do these things first again. 

Remember, every child is different. Strong resistance is not abnormal. Some children might make you wait hours for their cooperation. Therefore, you can try every tip on this list and they will still fight and resist.

So, stay the path with respectful cooperation strategies. Our strong-willed kids need all the same opportunities for love and healthy support, even if they reject them. 

We need to try our best as parents, especially in the cases of kids who reject our help and efforts. We always have to give more of ourselves and more of our effort before we ask our kids to give more. 

Their job is not to meet us halfway, although many will. Instead, they are likely there, sitting stubbornly planted in one spot, and they need us to go the whole way. Over and over and over.

Cooperation Strategies Checklist

Keys To Cooperation
(before you try anything else)

Give Them Power Whenever You Can

I can often feel like a weak parent if I compromise with my kids. But it is not a sign of a weak parent to give a child choice, influence, or control. 

Actually, the opposite is true. 

A parent who sees their child as a whole person who deserves choice and respect will seek compromise. 

A parent who wants to raise a child to become a responsible and independent adult will recognize this desire for power, choice, and influence as something healthy for their future. They will help the child have what they desire, within limits, and subsequently teach them life-long skills.

Sometimes, parents will even give their children the power to fail in order to learn. (And meet them at the point of failure with love, acceptance, and a helping hand.)

Giving them power doesn’t make you less powerful. 

I’ll go into more detail on how to give them power below.

We need to keep in mind that we as parents must know the limits our children don’t, and enforce them when it comes to safety. We are 100% responsible for setting healthy boundaries in which they can try, succeed, and sometimes fail within.


Don’t Get Stuck On Details

Sometimes I get so hung up on a detail during a power struggle with my child. They fixate on a random detail that I decided I won’t budge on. 

It may go like this, “I am standing outside of your room. I am not walking back into your room just so we can walk out together.” Details. I am human after all. 

Mostly the detail is attached to my pride or laziness. I’ll think how unreasonable the request is that I have to return those 3 feet into her room when I was just there and she didn’t want to come. And what if I give in and she demands this every time?

As parents, it can be frustrating to feel like a little person who barely knows her head from her foot is “in control of you”. Stay firm and focused on what matters most and let the details go. 


Have Clear And Simple Communication

“Have I made myself clear?”. Well, did you actually make yourself clear? Or did you just say the same thing over and over from across the room? 

I will go into more detail about how we can have clear communication for the greatest outcome of cooperation in the specific strategies below.  

But, we can’t ever expect cooperation when we don’t make every effort to communicate clearly. If there is no eye contact, if the instructions are too complicated, and if our emotions are high and stressed, the chance for cooperation falls apart. 


Work As A Team

If your child sees themselves in it with you, you’re much more likely to get them to cooperate. It shouldn’t be a spirit of parent vs. child. 

Rather it should be a spirit of parent and child working together. Children shouldn’t be seen as a problem to be solved but someone with a struggle that they need our help in overcoming. 


Pick Your Battles

Parenting often comes with the overwhelming pressure that everything our kids do matters because we are shaping their future. And it does matter but it doesn’t all matter today.

If you’re going to correct something you need to be ready to correct it nearly always. 

There are so many things we have to teach our kids. I mean they come out knowing how to eat and fill diapers and kind of sleep. We have our work cut out, so where can we stop setting limits and teach them in another way?

Maybe when they are drawing they can draw on the table and clean it after. Maybe they can walk barefoot to the car in winter, they likely won’t do it again. 

Where can you say yes a bit more and give more freedom?


Know Their Triggers

What sets your child off? Often a child’s irritating behavior is predictable because they’ll get upset about the same thing every time.

Don’t be surprised by resistance and keep tabs on what can cause it. 


Practice Prevention

There will be many battles we can’t avoid so let’s be proactive about preventing the ones we can! 

If giving your child a tic-tac will stop them from having a 20-minute meltdown about their shoes, then for goodness’ sake, keep a box of tic-tacks by the door and use them! 

Another prevention technique is to get rid of the troublemaker. Not the kid, the object. My daughter was losing her mind because her 50+ stuffed animals weren’t set up “just so” every night at bedtime. So the stuffed animals found a new home on the floor next to the bed instead. 

Prevent, prevent, prevent. Be prevention-minded. 

Side Note: I don’t believe taking away everything that causes a problem is the answer when it’s done as a punishment. We should take objects away if it will bring our children freedom from a repeatedly difficult situation. 


Give “Do” instructions rather than “Don’t”

Tell them what to do instead of what not to do. 

When you tell a toddler, “Don’t jump on the couch”, they think, “Then what the heck am I supposed to do on this thing?” 

Instead, try saying “Sit on the couch”, or “Let’s find a place you can jump.”


Don’t Get Emotional | Stay Calm

So easy right? Our children shouldn’t have to learn all these boundaries, rules, and skills and have to deal with our emotions on top of it. 

When I was in 1st grade I scratched a girl on the school bus. Horrible I know. The problem was that my parent’s reaction was so emotional and dramatic that I never had the chance to feel remorseful or deal with my guilt. 

I was just overwhelmed with the whirlwind that was someone else’s emotions. 

They weren’t wrong to be upset but I wasn’t evil. I had a moment where I lost my head and did something terrible. I needed someone to help me understand what happened and show me how to make it right so I could learn how to do that for myself in the future. 

If our children are only apologizing “because dad is flipping out” that is teaching them all the wrong things. Keep it together. 

If you feel like you’re going to lose it, put your kids somewhere safe so you can be on your own for a moment and breathe. I like to have a sweet treat around to snack on in those high-emotion moments. 

We don’t have to handle everything immediately. Better to handle it in a half hour when you can be calm, than right away where you will do damage. 

There are no bad kids, just bad behaviors. We can always love the child even if we hate their actions. 


If You Lose It… Repair

Children are wired to test us, to push limits, to find boundaries. There may come a time when you don’t maintain a high standard of respect. It happens. 

In those moments, repairing the relationship with our kids is crucial. We go to our child, take responsibility for our mistakes, explain how we should have handled it, and ask for forgiveness. 

Humility is not weakness, pride is. 

Let’s Get Specific | The Strategies

This is not a list of things that all need to be accomplished at every potential impasse. These are simply methods to try when needed!


Right Before We Need Their Cooperation

Recognize if Your child is Busy With something

Whenever possible, respect their activities and allow them to finish what they are doing. Make them aware of an expiration time before we make our requests. 

If it helps, reassure them that they can come back to the activity at some future point. “You can finish your book as soon as the blocks are all in their bag.” 

We want them to know their activities are important to us too. 


Prepare them

Calmly warn them about what is to come and when. Even with small children, it’s a good habit to give a sense of time such as, “in a few minutes” or “soon” to help frame their understanding. 

When Halloween comes around, I prepare my kids before the costumes are even chosen that they must be worn with appropriate shoes and a jacket if it’s cold. 

Give them time to accept whatever will come. 


Be specific

Tell them exactly what you want to happen in as few words as possible. “In 1 minute I need you to put the book down and go put all your blocks in their bag.”


Give them and yourself ample time

Especially young kids need time. If you know they hate the task then add on another 5 minutes as well. 


Countdown (kind of)

“In five minutes…In one minute…”

Even for very young children, doing this leading up to an expectation can be a very helpful cooperation strategy.


Make sure they aren’t too hungry or too tired

When children have an unmet need for rest or food, we don’t stand a chance. Better to forget the request until later or simply do it for them and meet their need. 


Empathize with their frustration

We don’t have to pretend like we love awful tasks and neither do they. Share something you’re not jazzed about doing but have to and how that makes you feel. This gives them the sense that we are in this together.


If they are capable, then let them do it themselves

My strong-willed girl that I mentioned before would make putting on shoes or brushing her hair a misery marathon if I was present or assisting.

I started telling her “Please go put your shoes on” Or “Please go brush your hair.” When given these requests, the result would be speedy and drama-free. 


Practice

If the action is something that has a time limit (such as brushing their teeth or putting a jacket on), practice doing these things when you don’t have to. Familiarity with the action will support cooperation. 

For example, even if mom can help with something, have dad do it so they practice getting someone else’s help. Even if you don’t have to go out for the day, put the shoes on and go for a short walk or to the mailbox so they practice getting them on. 


Be prepared to help them if needed and monitor their progress

This is so important. If you aren’t prepared to follow through, don’t start at all. 

If we give an instruction and get distracted, chances are our kid knows that and will take advantage of it. 

Give them space to do whatever it is without having someone breathing down their neck. BUT stay tuned into what is going on and be ready to jump in if help or re-focus is needed. 

Cooperation Strategies Checklist

When We Need Their Cooperation


Get at eye level and have eye contact when giving instructions 


Change The Narrative

Sometimes phrasing can set a child off so change the narrative.

Instead of saying, “Let me brush your teeth” try saying, “Let me see your tongue…is it blue!?” Or  “Let me count your teeth, any new ones?”


Say your request quickly and plainly, use as few words as possible

Don’t make it too complicated or wordy such as

“I’m going to tell you in 1 minute that it’s time you finally put the book down and go put your clothes away, because do you remember that grandma is coming? And I don’t want her tripping on all that stuff in your room. Last time she….”

You get the picture. The actual expectation is lost in a sea of explanations.


Give them 2 options that you approve of (not more)

Too many choices can make life harder for kids even though it seems like we are doing them a favor.

“Would you like to have milk in the blue cup or the green cup?” 
“Would you like to go to the bathroom now or in 1 minute?”


Focus on one thing at a time, keep the main thing the main thing

If you need them to go to bed don’t fixate on how they stomped their feet or didn’t want to say goodnight. If they are in bed quietly you have succeeded!


Help them stay focused


Slow the process down

Break it down into different steps and give them one at a time. If “put on your shoes” isn’t working, try, “Go into the hallway, okay now grab your shoes. Great, now please put them on.”


Let them try to take charge and do it more independently

Sometimes it will take longer but rejoice in their independence, that’s what we want long-term anyway, isn’t it?


Give them responsibility attached to The Request

“Can you get your shoes on and give your brother his shoes?” Having a job makes kids feel like they have leadership and are significant. 


Let them choose the “stuff” so they can be excited about it

Give them something about this task they dislike that they actually look forward to.

For example, if toothbrushing is a challenge, bring them to buy a new toothbrush and toothpaste. If they don’t want to go to bed, let them grab a stuffed animal to sleep with.


Mix in some competition against you (not each other!)

This was the only way I could get my two-year-old to go to the bathroom at first. I would say “Who’s going to be first you or me?” And of course, you have to lose… sorry!

Side Note: We don’t want to put our kids in competition with one another. This would make it seem like the winner is more valuable to you and will likely stir up animosity between siblings. Have them challenge you instead.


Have fun | Be Ridiculous

Kids don’t care, they just want to laugh. Put on crazy music, make a silly face, pretend to eat the shoe or toothbrush, whatever! Just get that kid to laugh!


Phrasing is key

Avoid questions: “Can you please go put your shoes on?” or suggestions: “Why don’t you go put your shoes on?” These can make it sound like the child has an option.

Stick to respectful, direct instructions. “Please go put your shoes on.”


Explain that wasting time with this issue will take time away from something desirable later

Again, do this in as few words as possible and in a non-threatening manner. But try to help your child understand that there is only so much time in a day, use it wisely.


Sincerely repeat their preferences

“I hear you, you really don’t want to put your shoes on. I get that.” And be sincere. 


Give them hope

Help them realize that what they have to do is not forever and they will be okay again soon.

“You really don’t want to put your shoes on now. I get that. This is what you need to do now though and you can take them off again in the car.” 


Gently explain the potential consequences of their actions

Learn how to do this in a non-threatening way. Threats instil fear and we want to simply inform them.

“I want you to put your shoes on. If you can’t do it yourself I will have to help you.”

Be careful here of the consequences you choose. It should be logical and related. Stick to natural causes and effects like the one above or another consequence may be, “If you don’t put your shoes on we can’t go to the playground.” Although following through can be difficult, you aren’t likely to run into shoe issues very often once a logical consequence is enforced.

Also sometimes you’ll find they like the consequence and that can be good too. If you say, “Put your shoes on or I have to carry you to the car.” They may say, “Great carry me!” Then try to get the shoes on again in the car.

Side Note: Keep away from unrelated punishments such as, “If you don’t put your shoes on you’re going to clean the bathroom.” If it doesn’t make sense it won’t motivate them the next time because they don’t understand the cause and effect. 

Additional Side Note: Don’t lie to your kids. If you tell them a consequence and they end up deserving it then you must follow through. Be sure when informing them of possible consequences that they are something you will be able to follow through on and not an empty threat.


Give them the option of your help

“You’re having trouble putting your shoes on yourself, can I help you do that?”


Save something as a kind of “treat” | Find a way to make it special

My husband is so great at making boring things exciting. To get their mind off of the frustration in front of them, direct their attention to something fun that’s coming.

“Should I add some honey to your toast this morning?”, “Should we listen to music when we get in the car?”, “Do you want to use my hairbrush today?”

Any little “bonus” can make a huge difference and help them get unstuck.


Instead of taking something away as a punishment, give it as a reward for good behavior

Instead of creating a consequence, “If you don’t finish your dinner then you don’t get dessert.”

Instead try, “If you finish everything on your plate you can have a dessert after!” This offers something as a reward or incentive.

It’s different from bribery because we are giving them something logical that we want them to have anyway.

Also, if the food on their plate is too much and they don’t want to finish they have the choice of saying “no thank you” to dessert. You are putting them in charge of their fate.

Another time I have often used this is with a bedtime lullaby. “If you lay down without yelling, I will turn on your nightlight lullaby.” Something I would do anyway but now it’s a reward for the behavior I want to encourage.


After the cooperation was achieved (or not…)

  • Praise and encourage them (no matter how challenging they were, find something!)
  • Say, Thank You
    If we want our children to be grateful for our help and service we have to model that when they cooperate with us as well.
  • Connect
    Hug, kiss, assure them of your love and if necessary, your forgiveness.
  • Have a system that encourages desirable behavior 
    In 1-2-3 Magic he goes through many creative reward systems for helping our child do something they often resist. Some examples are, sticker charts, using a timer, praise, docking, and so on. 
  • Move on quickly
    Don’t sit in the frustrated aftermath of a resistant child. Be the adult who can restore peace and joy to the day instead of making our kids work to earn our affection again.

Cooperation killers

  • Intimidation
  • Shame
  • Embarrassment
  • Yelling
  • Stressed parent
  • Excessive Physical Force
  • Threats*

*There is a definitive difference between threatening a child and making them aware of the potential consequences they will face. Threats include instilling fear to scare them away from being disobedient. Explaining a consequence is done without strong emotions and in a matter-of-fact tone to make the child aware of a possible negative outcome. 

My favorite questions that help gain cooperation

  • Do you want to do this now or in 1 minute? 
  • Can you help me? 
  • Would you like to do it yourself or do you want my help?
  • How can I help you?

Stay Reasonable

Where do they get it from? Well…

Backtalk, attitudes, and ways of expressing frustration, especially in preschool-aged children are often learned. Children are great mirrors.

What can you do if you realize they have learned a bad behavior from you? Tell them they probably do that because they have seen you act that way in a similar circumstance. Tell them that method of handling things is not great and share how you are working on it as well. I have told my daughter “I am still learning too.”


Finally, don’t hear the “shark music”

In the book No-Drama Discipline, Dr. Siegel mentions how we can allow our children’s behavior to fill us with fear for them and their future. At every misbehavior, we might hear “shark music” playing in the background, tempting us to believe the worst of our kids.

Resist hearing the shark music when trying to gain cooperation with a resistant child. Kids do crazy things and that doesn’t mean they will have problems their whole lives.

Stick to the plan you have in place for raising them and love them fiercely. Don’t allow fear to shape your parenting because our children feel that and if you’re scared, can you imagine what they feel?

No, they need us to be confident and calm, assuring them that these problems (which scare them as well) will pass and that they have a great future ahead of them.


Healthy Cooperation Pin

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