Why children struggle to cooperate

Some  common complaints we hear from parents are: It’s frustrating that my 3 year old refuses to write; my 8 year old son gives me a hard time when I try to wake him up in the morning; It’s so irritating when my teenage daughter does not  finish her school assignments on time. 

We believe that children do not cooperate with us  because they are either lazy or stubborn, or just want to trouble and make life difficult for us. 

Let’s examine what’s happening?  Children want to cooperate but  they are unable to do so  because there is an incompatibility between the child’s traits  and the expectations thrust on them by  parents,  teachers, relatives and peers. Each and every child is different and unique. Each child develops their capability according to their inner timetable. So, different children may achieve milestones at different times. For example, one child may start walking as a 1 year old while another  might do so a few months later.  As parents, our intention is to teach children to do the task at hand without resistance.  However, forcing children to go against their inner timetable to do an activity leads to the child resisting by crying. This further builds stress in the child. 

Here’s a case study. Ajay is a  3 year old who loves to run and play. He has a high need for movement and cannot sit in one place for long. Meanwhile, his mother wants him to sit down and finish the writing work given by the school. She is worried that he will be left behind in his class.  When Ajay’s mother makes him sit down to write, he ends up crying and has a meltdown. Child development experts say that hand eye coordination for a child develops  around the age of 5  to 6 years. So in Ajay’s case, there is an evident incompatibility between the mother’s expectation and his capability. The melt down Ajay is having comes from the stress he is feeling. Resisting writing and crying is his way of  communicating his inability to do the task.  

Brain fact:   When a person is stressed, a lot of energy gets used up. During this stressful time,  the hypothalamus shuts down some functions of the brain that are not essential for immediate survival.  To conserve energy ,some of the functions that may be suspended are the digestive and immune systems and the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that controls reasoning and decision making). When children are going through stress and have big feelings , it is impossible for them to exercise self -control as the prefrontal cortex which helps in emotional regulation is inaccessible. 

It is helpful for parents to be aware of this fact and to know about the stress caused in children due to the  incompatibility between a child's capabilities and expectations from adults. As parents, the first step is  to make a shift in our belief system – Every child wants to  learn and develop and is not being lazy. Believing that our child is capable , will make it easier for us to trust our child and let go of some of our fears.

We could attempt to understand where the incompatibility lies with curiosity and openness. This will help in moving our focus from ‘ I have to make my child do this task’  to ‘what is stopping my child from doing the task’. Taking a pause to think about this gives us a chance to understand our child. 

Once we identify the incompatibility, we can collaborate with the child and help him bridge this gap.  Support could be offered in numerous ways such as listening empathetically, having open discussions, or problem solving together etc. As a facilitator in our children’s life, it is important to trust and help work out solutions along with them. 


Author: Sunitha R.  is a certified parent educator with Parenting Matters, an organization which empowers parents to build deeper connections in families.