How to connect with an uncooperative 8-year-old

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Q. I have an 8-year-old girl who loves to turn on the passive aggression when she doesn’t get what she wants. It usually occurs when we need to go somewhere, often walking to school with her younger sister. The catalyst can be having to wear gym shoes because it’s a PE day. (Tantrum ensues, it takes 10 minutes to put on her shoes, she walks really slowly and acts as if I don’t exist while walking two blocks to school, nothing motivates her to get moving.) Or the girls get ready early and have 10 minutes to watch TV, but she doesn’t get the show she wants, a tantrum takes 10 minutes, followed by the same walking-slow routine. Today she held up a neighbor who was trying to get out of her driveway. She asked my daughter to walk out of the way, but my girl kept up the baby-steps routine. Once at school, she didn’t want to join the kids, was grumpy and wouldn’t talk to me. I had to offer to get a teacher to help her before she went to the right place. Finally, she started coming around and would hug me and join the circle. How do I handle this?

A. First, you have all of my empathy. Nothing boils my own parenting blood like one of my children poking along, ignoring my pleas and commands, mucking up the works completely. I think I see red, literally. It has taken me a long time to understand what all of this means and find my own way through it. You will not be any different — meaning you will find your own way through this, and it will come with some healthy discomfort.

For now, let’s try to figure out what this is all about. Why do children do this? In one word: discouragement. When I see this uncooperativeness, my guess is that your daughter is deeply discouraged. What does “discouraged” mean when it comes to children’s behavior? Well, when I see a discouraged child, I see a child who is having some connection issues in her relationships. She fights you at every turn, over the small and the big, and no matter what you do, you can’t seem to get traction or cooperation.

I can feel you panicking when you read that. “Meghan, are you saying that I am not well connected to my child?” Not necessarily. Let me explain:

Why do children cooperate for their parents? Why do they walk up the hill to school when asked? Why do they move out of the way when requested to do so? It depends on two main factors: maturity and connection.

The younger the children, the less mature. The less mature, the less likely they are to cooperate. Why? They don’t understand your perspective, they are easily distracted by other things they like to do better, and they are a little self-centered. Does this mean young children don’t want to please? Oh, no, they do! They love to help and do and be like you, but this is not true cooperation. This is just their normal development. As they near the age of 7 (usually, but not always), you begin to see their young minds clicking away and their prefrontal cortex assessing the cooperative process, holding many emotions and thoughts, and making more mature decisions.

So, when it comes to cooperation, what is stopping your daughter? She is of the age about which many people would say, “She is too old for behavior like this.” You may even be thinking this. So, here’s a little something I want you to write on a sticky note and hang it where you can read it. Often. “Every human cooperates for those she feels connected to.”

Think about it. A school mom has called, needing your help in the classroom. Her tone is formal, and although she is utterly polite, the feeling is impersonal. Off the bat, I would say no, and you might, too. Or even if I did say yes, I would feel a little resentful. But let’s say your best friend calls and asks you for help, and it is a pretty big ask. Driving her parents to the airport. Taking her kids overnight. Your answer? “Of course, whatever you need.”

What is the difference in the two asks? Connection. When a person close to our heart needs something, we are impelled to do it. Our hearts and our brains want to do it. When we help someone we are not connected to, we are compelled to do it (which is to mean that we may feel coerced, pushed, obliged). This is such a crucial difference that everything hangs in the balance.

Your daughter is not cooperating because she doesn’t have a reason to cooperate. She is going to get your attention one way or another, and her hurting heart is getting it through fights. What she wants badly is for you to hold on to her and not let her go, but her behavior leads you to do the opposite. You push, you drag, you force. The more this happens, the needier she gets. The more needy she becomes, the worse the behavior becomes. It is a cycle of frustration that sees no end in sight.

But she doesn’t want this. Children are not programmed to be emotionally and physically apart from those they love (at least, not like this). Your daughter wants to cooperate, she just doesn’t know what else to do. She doesn’t have the maturity to say, “Mom, I love you, and I need you to see me. I need you to hold me more. I need you to laugh and stop your angry face. I am afraid you think I am bad. I am afraid I am bad. I am afraid you love my sister more.” She can’t say these things because she is too young.

But there are some simple, effective and clear repairs here. Note I did not say “quick.” Anything you do to change your relationship is worthwhile and must land on your daughter in the manner it needs to. You are not in charge of this timing, and while this can be frustrating, knowing this can be freeing.

Let’s get a list going. (I love a list.)

1. Stop talking about what isn’t working. I think everyone in the family knows what isn’t working, and drawing more attention to it with language is not helping.

2. Have faith in your heart and soul that she wants to do and be better. That she wants to be a child who cooperates. Say that to her. Say, “I know your heart. I know what a great girl you are.” Despite all evidence to the contrary, you must say it. If you can’t keep the faith, who can?

3. Create opportunities for her to succeed. It really doesn’t matter how small or insignificant it may be, any positivity is a pivot in the right direction. Do not expect her to wake up one morning and change. You must create situations where she is noticed for her kindness, cooperation and essentially, the fact that she is alive and deserving of love.

4. Highlight when something goes well, but don’t get “cheerlead-y.” You don’t want to praise and become too obvious about what is going well; you simply want to notice and thank her when she demonstrates cooperation. Think quiet talks at bedtime or in the car. Like Fonzie, “be cool.”
5. Above all, create time and space where you look into her eyes and listen to her. Whether that is in the library, hiking, snuggling, playing sports, actively create times where she is away from her sister and feels valued. These are not times to teach or lecture. This is about you understanding what makes her tick.

Note that I say nothing about discipline and consequences. I strongly suggest you not take a punitive angle here. It will further distance you from her, hampering your ability to have a good influence on her. To reach her heart, you must access it with kindness and gentleness. Does that mean she doesn’t need to be moved along? She does. Just do it as wordlessly and as kindly as you can. If she is crying or angry, so be it. Just don’t pile on with lectures, threats, bribes or anger. Easier said than done, but alas, that is life.

Meghan is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English and secondary education, a master’s degree in school counseling and is a certified parent coach.

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