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3 reasons why your child won't do what you ask them to do

Number one question from the conversations with parents in the past few weeks has been: Why won't my child do what I ask them to do?

It is such a hard space, and creates so much upset for both parents and children - especially if we perceive these actions and behaviours as intentional.


In most cases it is not that they are consciously going through the process of thinking "Mum asked me to put my shoes on, therefore I will scatter all my blocks on the living room floor and see what happens."

Moving away from seeing this resistance as intentional, and understanding some key moments in child development allows us to meet our child where they're at.

Here are three things I have found useful to know.

Prefrontal cortex and the understanding of (long term) results of our actions

What if I told you that the only thing you will gain from brushing your teeth is that slightly minty taste in your mouth? That's it. Would you still intentionally spend three minutes, two or three times a day, doing just that? I'm not sure I would...

I do it though, because my brain allows me to understand long-term consequences of my choices. It is not so for our children.

Understanding results of our actions (especially long term ones) is a developmental process that happens over a long period of time.

Spending time explaining things, especially when you're both triggered, is only going to add fuel to the fire. If you're explaining to your child what might happen in the future as a result of what they do now (even if this is really really important and absolutely good for them - like brushing teeth, taking a shower etc.), the reason they are not following you is that their brain cannot comprehend what you're trying to say. Prefrontal cortex - the part of the brain where this understanding happens - is the last part of the brain to develop.

Some things that might work for you:

  • make things fun and playful in the moment

  • leave explanations for times outside of the "moment" - talk about the importance of brushing teeth outside of teeth brushing time, when your child is more relaxed, engaged, able to take in some information

The ability to see things from the other person's perspective

Have you ever tried convincing your child to do something by asking them to imagine how you're feeling? Or how this might feel for another child?

When you're trying to leave the house and your child is just starting on their new Lego construction and you say something like: I really need to go now because I will be late to work.

When we ask our young child to sit in someone else's shoes and then do the "right" thing it is not that they don't want to... they literally can't.

Theory of mind - the ability to see the world from another person's perspective - begins to develop around four years of age. Have you ever noticed how very young children play hide and seek? They cover only their eyes or their face? Or they put their head under a blanket? That's because if they cannot see, in their mind it means nobody can - their perspective of the world is the only one that is available to them.

The ability to imagine another point of view, and then to empathize with it, develops slowly and over time. And once children can imagine what someone else might be feeling, they will need hundreds of experiences of significant adults understanding their perspective and empathizing with it, before they can do the same for others.

Some things that might work for you:

  • empathize with the child's point of view, see their perspective

  • acknowledge all feelings around whatever it is that they're not wanting to do

  • remember that understanding does not mean agreeing

Counterwill instinct

Can you remember the last time when you were standing in line at the supermarket and someone behind you pushed their trolley towards you and said "hurry up, will you?". Did you smile, nod and push your trolley faster? Or did you slow down ever so slightly, perhaps thinking "don't tell me what to do". That right there - "don't tell me what to do" - is counterwill. Our adult brains are mature enough that we can (usually) stop ourselves from reacting, even when this instinct is there. For our children it is a different experience.

In short, counterwill instinct is the instinct to say "no" to any perceived demand or control, first described by Otto Rank, and in detail more recently by Gordon Neufeld. Two things are important here. First, it is instinct - it kicks in, and the child acts on it; it's not a choice that they make in the moment. Second, it is to perceived control or demand - you may not have meant it as control, but your child perceived it as such, and that's enough.

Counterwill is in place to protect children from obeying and following those they have no relationship with. But it is very present across all relationships and all stages. It is especially prevalent in moments when you ask your child to do something without taking a moment to connect with them first, or at times when your relationship is a bit rocky.

Some things that might work:

  • take a moment to connect with your child before you ask them to do something

  • if you notice your child wanting to say "no" to just about everything you say, step back from requests (or demands) for a moment and focus on the relationship

  • have routines and rituals in place - if everyone knows things happen on particular days/times, it makes life more predictable and leaves less space for pushing and pulling

Knowing some of these developmental stages hopefully helps in setting our expectations a bit closer to reality. And maybe that gap between our expectations and our children's developmental reality can also get a lot smaller.

With care,


Would you like to be able to support your child at their developmental level? Schedule a free call to see if I can help.

More resources:

Gordon Neufeld's course on Counterwill

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