Uncooperative 6-year-old. Just a phase, or a real problem?

My 6-year-old son seems to want to oppose anything I ask. Here are some examples of an average day. 

“Get dressed, please,” I ask. “Nope. I don’t want to go to school today.”

“You have to go to school, it’s time to get dressed so we aren’t late,” I say. 

“Nope I don’t want to go to school.” 

“You have to get dressed otherwise you are going to school in your pajamas.” 

Then he cries and says “Help me dressed mom!! Take off my pajamas for me, help me put on my pants, put on my socks.” 

So I give in and dress him, so we can get to school on time. This drives me insane but it’s becoming the regular. 

Same thing with swimming lessons, except he doesn’t want to pack his swim bag. He doesn’t want to go and fights it until we are almost late. 

Same thing with any activity. We suggest he start taking off the training wheels to learn how to ride without, and he outright refuses and pouts. We took the training wheels off one night while he was in bed and he had a fit when he saw and started trying to put them back on himself. 

How do I get my son to listen and be willing to try new things? Every. Single. Thing is a fight.

Ah, six-year-olds. They make King Henry the Eighth seem reasonable. Or any other tyrant you can think of.

The short answer to your question is, yes, it’s just a phase. But don’t get too excited, because as with all phases, how you navigate it is going to have a lot of impact on how it resolves.

The thing to remember about all children under 7 or 8 is that they do not respond very well to reason. It’s just not something they’re wired to do. Their reasoning skills are developing, so to try to appeal to a six-year-old’s sense of reason when he’s digging in his heels is absolutely not going to work. And worse, it’s not going to teach him anything you want him to learn.

Now some people might say, “you’re the parent, you’re in control, make him do it!” And of course, you probably can make him do it. But at what cost? I don’t know your child, some are easer to “make” do things than others. What do you believe you’d have to do to  make him comply? And how would you feel about the situation and yourself as a parent if you went down that path? Fortunately, there’s an easier way than using “might makes right.”

The brain system that IS well developed in a six-year-old is the limbic brain: his emotions. All babies are born with the capacity to have all the emotions—and they do! When they’re babies, their emotions mostly seem like a mixture of laughing, crying, and other funny expressions that we’re always trying to capture with our phones and put up on Instagram. But you’ll notice that babies have different cries. They sound different whether they are tired, scared, hungry or angry. Their blank-slate neocortex is waiting to hear from you—the parent—what words to put to those feelings. And when you help them with that, teaching them the words for their feelings over time and in a gentle way, it has the added benefit of speeding up your child’s cognitive development. They’ll respond to reason eventually, but using the emotional brain to develop the reasoning brain will make it sooner rather than later.

How to begin? Begin when there’s no conflict. Maybe read a book about feelings (get to know your local children’s librarian). Or watch a movie, something like Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out. Tune in to the activity you’re doing together and start a conversation about what the characters are feeling. Be sure to give the feelings their proper names. You’ll want to make some time to start doing this, because it sounds as though your boy is grappling with some feelings that even he doesn’t like, but he doesn’t have the words to ask you directly for help right now. He’s taking the “stop the presses” approach. Which is natural, that’s really all little children know how to do when a complex issue upsets them: just sit and refuse to budge. Believe me, he’s not reasoning this out as a strategy. And for what it’s worth, I’ve been in this situation as a mom. It’s a tough one.

Monitor your own feelings while you’re going through these struggles. How do YOU feel when this happens? I’ll tell you how I felt when it happened with my child (see I don’t even dare say he or she because I don’t want to get in trouble with them): I was frustrated, helpless, disappointed, and maybe ever so slightly angry and scared. That sounds like a lot doesn’t it, from one little kid who won’t get up and dressed for school. But it isn’t really. If it happens daily, it’s frustrating. If he won’t do as you ask, and you can’t or don’t want to physically make him (which isn’t the answer if you hope for a smooth family life, so good for you for not wanting to go there) then there’s a feeling of helplessness associated with it, particularly when we don’t have another idea up our sleeve. I am ashamed to admit that I resorted to bribery at times, McDonald’s hash browns on the way to school, specifically. And the child is grown, educated and self-supporting, so it didn’t ruin her (oh look what I did there).

And I was even a little angry and scared. Why wouldn’t I be scared? I couldn’t be late for work every day, I’d lose my job. And we needed my job. And I needed my reputation as a reliable employee. For that matter, she couldn’t be late for school every day or I would be held responsible for interfering with her education. It felt at times like my kid was holding us all hostage, not realizing that if I lost my job, she’d suffer too. And you can’t tell them. Little kids don’t need to know that stuff, but you definitely deserve to have some support with it.

So this is kind of a three step process. One: get a bit more in touch with your own feelings every day. How will this help, you ask? Well, trust me, it will. And don’t skip it and go to the second step, because if you haven’t done this one, the later ones will backfire on you.

How do you get in touch with your feelings? Well, you can decide that. You may have some things that you do already that help you feel connected to who you are. Sometimes exercise accomplishes this, playing an instrument, taking a bath, doing yoga, journaling. One quick way is to simply take an inventory of your feelings a few times a day. I’d like to suggest over your morning coffee, but I know a lot of parents don’t have much time to sit down. You could take advantage of the first time that you DO really sit down in the morning, and you probably have your phone in your hand (I’m not going to get more specific here I think you get the idea). Open Evernote or some note app and just type a list of your feelings. Or dictate them so they type out. Make sure you get all the feelings you’re feeling, and be honest about them. A nice, diverse list of six or seven is pretty good. And there should be one or two on there that surprise you a little, or at least that you don’t plan on sharing with others. Once you get a good list, and you’ve got all your feelings on it, take a breath. Read it back to yourself while breathing. Then ask yourself: “how do I feel about having these feelings?” When an answer comes—a feeling word or three—write it down, add it to the list. Then breathe and read another time or two. Appreciate your feelings, if you can, even the ones you wish you didn’t have. They showed up for you to try and help. They don’t need to hijack your day, and they’re less likely to if you notice them. When you’re done, delete the list. Just get rid of it and move on with your day.

The second step is to make sure you’ve got some regular times during the day when you can spend time with your child, giving him attention just for himself. This is one of the things bedtime routines are for: children are primed to want to be close to you right before bed, so if you plan and give them that it can be a very effective use of your resources. Family meal time is another good time for this. Also car rides can be a terrific time to talk with your child about the things they’re finding interesting, or play a game, maybe even a game they make up. All of this is very validating to a child: it makes them feel seen and heard, and leads them to connecting with how deeply they matter to you. This is a very necessary foundation in order to foster trust between you and your child. And during any of these times it’s possible to start a conversation about feelings, so that they will learn more about them, not just how they feel, but what they’re called, and that they’re natural and everyone has them.

The third step is best undertaken after you’ve started the first two, but you don’t need to wait that long. Once you’ve done one and two at least once, you can jump in with the good stuff. Here’s an example of what you might say to your 6-year-old that has a good chance of having the impact you’re looking for.

6-year-old: “Nope. I don’t want to go to school today.”

Mom: “You don’t want to go to school. You want to do something different.”

6-year-old: “Yes. I want to stay home in my pajamas.” Or some other thing. Or nothing at which point you’d need to say something like “I wonder what you would prefer to do?”

Mom: “You prefer to stay home in your pajamas. What do you like about staying home in your pajamas?”

6-year-old: “It’s just nicer…” Listen to whatever he says. Validate the desire. It’s okay to want something, even if we can’t have it right away.

Mom: “It makes you feel a way you want to feel.”

6-year-old: “Yes.”

Mom: “I’d like to hear how you want to feel.” Sit down on the bed and give attention for a  few minutes. Listen to your child. Let him talk about what he wishes could happen. Or perhaps he will bring up something at school that’s upsetting to him. Listen to that if he does. Perhaps he will say:

6-year-old: “I don’t like that bus driver.”

Mom, with full attention and interest: “You don’t like the bus driver. Hmm.” And if he doesn’t say anything, “Can you tell me more?”

And the conversation would go on like this, probably not taking more than 5 minutes, 10 at the most. By the end of it, it is likely your child will remember all by himself some reason he DOES want to be in school. Perhaps he has friends there? Or some activity he enjoys? If you sense that he has talked about all his troubling feelings, and you have listened compassionately, he might be ready to think about what he DOES like. 

And when that happens, he’ll bound out of bed and start getting himself dressed without any more trouble at all. 

This is really an approach for a six-year-old. If you’ve got an older child who is school resistant, a teen or pre-teen, the bones are the same, but you might need a bit more support. It’s always helpful to validate children’s feelings, whatever they are, as you validate your own.

Feelings just are, they’re not right or wrong. They arise to help inform our choices and actions. Live this for yourself and you will soon be having the cutest and most satisfying conversations with your child and getting their creative help with how to get the chores done and make going to school fun again.

Photo by Nicholas Githiri from Pexels.

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