When the Kid Who Can Won't

angry child

Compliance is a part of life. Someone (especially someone in authority, like a boss) asks you to do something. If you do it, fine. If you don't, there's a problem. If you consistently don't do it, there's trouble.

Educators and family counselors will tell you that this problem of noncompliance has reached our children. Exactly what is the problem? Simple: a noncompliant youngster probably won't fail family, but he can fail the fourth grade. When we're talking about capable young people, this is unacceptable.

Understanding Noncompliance

Psychologist and author Dr. James Sutton has been studying noncompliance and other forms of oppositional and defiant behavior in young people since the early '70s; he wrote his dissertation on the subject in 1981. His particular interest has always been the study of these behaviors in children and adolescents who have friends and solid family ties, and who are not in trouble with the law; he calls it the "Good Kid" Disorder. In short, these are good kids with very irritating behaviors. There are plenty of them.
mother scolding daughter

"Over the past 25 years or so, there has been a steady increase in oppositional and defiant behaviors in children," Sutton says. "Since this behavior can bring on a great deal of strife in families and at school, behaviors like noncompliance, pouting and stubbornness, obstructionism (interfering with the plans and activities of others), and underachievement at school are difficult to tolerate, let alone handle effectively."

His book, If My Kid's So Nice ... Why's He Driving ME Crazy? Straight Talk About the "Good Kid" Disorder (Friendly Oaks Publications, 1997), points out a few reasons why noncompliance is seen so often today in capable youngsters. For example, noncompliance is a common behavior of youngsters who have sustained a crisis (such as the loss of a loved one). It is a component of recovery as youngsters attempt to regain appropriate control and autonomy in their lives. Fortunately, these behaviors are usually temporary; they go away as adjustments are made.

Still, other children appear to be oppositional and defiant from birth, with apparently no external factors influencing the behavior. "The doctor pops this child on the bottom in the delivery room, and he refuses to cry; it's been struggle, struggle, struggle ever since," Sutton shares.

By far, however, most oppositional and defiant youngsters seem to cling tightly to resentment toward authority. This resentment is centered in the youngster's perception of adult expectations about his or her performance. More often than not, the child is not open to discussing it. The noncompliance does the talking.
mother talking to daughter

In the book, Sutton offers a number of ideas, interventions, and strategies for turning out a happier and more compliant son, daughter, or student. Two of the most powerful interventions are affirmation and empowerment.

"Unknowingly, we have become much too conditional in the way we regard our children," he observes. "Too many kids today feel that they have to produce or somehow earn recognition from their parents, and they are troubled and resentful about it."

Short affirmations are a good place to begin. A parent can say to their child, for instance, "You know Suzie, I know that I don't say it often enough, but you really are one of the best things that ever came into my life. I'm so glad that you are my daughter. You don't have to say anything; I just wanted you to know." The real secret for making this sort of affirmation "stick" is to immediately ask a non-related question, leave the room quickly, or in some other way make it comfortable for the youngster not to respond to what you just told them. This can be powerful stuff.

Offering choices is an excellent way to empower a youngster, and it goes a long way in better ensuring that the child will initiate and complete that which she has selected (thus directly dealing with noncompliance). For instance, a youngster can be given five cards, each of which has an assigned home or school task written on it. The youngster is told that, if he or she begins the tasks within the next ten minutes, and completes them, only three need to be done; two cards can be returned. This approach not only eliminates a number of hassles, but it is also perceived by the child as a fair and reasonable gesture. It won't "cure" the problem of noncompliance overnight, but it is a move in the right direction.

The Book:

In his book, If My Kid's So Nice ... Why's He Driving ME Crazy?, nationally recognized educator, psychologist, and author Dr. James Sutton addresses what he calls the "Good Kid" Disorder. He shows parents and teachers the behaviors to watch for, and how to better understand and respond to the youngster displaying them. Dr. Sutton cautions against the "No-lutions," seven typical reactions to the oppositional and defiant child that not only don't work, but they also add to the distress. Practical and proven strategies and interventions for improving task completion at home and at school, while encouraging more harmony in relationships, round out this excellent and timely resource. This book is published by Friendly Oaks Publications in hardbound edition with a full-color dust jacket ($23.95). Call 1-800-659-6628 to order (MasterCard and Visa).