How to survive a battle of wills


WHILE it's rare enough you see someone running along the street clutching a hysterical child screaming "no, no, I don't want to go home", the parent who has reached the verge of hysteria trying to cope with an obstinate child is certainly not so rare.

Dealing with a child who won't come home, put on a coat, go to school or anything else that anybody suggests can be infuriating for a parent. Some children seem to spend their lives refusing to co operate and parents feel a child was simply born - to be stubborn.

Marie Murray, principal clinical psychologist at St Joseph's Adolescent Services, Dublin, says: "Some children are more assertive and want more explanations for what they are asked to do. We have to parent children differently in terms of their needs. Some children are just temperamentally less able to agree, more liable to their emotions and more impulsive."

Geraldine French, a psychologist with Barnardos, agrees: "Some children can be born temperamentally more persistent or single minded - which can be a positive thing. But we should be very wary of labelling a child stubborn. It becomes a self fulfilling label - the child sees itself as stubborn and can't behave differently. It's important to separate the child from the behaviour, to explain you're not happy with the behaviour but that you love the child."

According to Murray, there is a natural stage of development when children seem to say `no' to everything. "Part of intellectual development is learning that one has choices and that yes and no have different meanings."

Older children sometimes seem to make a habit of refusing to cooperate too, but it's important to look behind the behaviour and try to understand the child. "Sheer tiredness can make children seem stubborn," says French. "They may be hungry, they may be harbouring some illness or they may be on medication. There can also be complex emotional reasons. They often can't express certain things to us or are afraid to admit to certain difficulties, so they refuse do what we ask."

Parents should examine how they relate to a child they feel is very stubborn, she says. "A child may feel he or she has no control and the only way to get it is by trying to control the parents. If a child feels he or she doesn't get enough attention, stubborn behaviour may be a way to get it, even if it is negative.

"Children have their own likes and dislikes and, if a child consistently refuses to do something, he or she is just asserting their own personality. Maybe it's only fair that a parent compromises."

Where a child seems be very determined by nature, it's better to work with this and not against it, says French. "If it's something you absolutely have to do, try to work out some strategy to help your child co operate.

"Parents may have to dream up, new strategies on a daily basis and this can be exhausting. At times nothing works and you end up carrying a screaming child down the street. But parents shouldn't feel they have failed. Children have to realise we aren't automatons who wear happy grins all day long. We have our limits too. If a very difficult situation arises you can talk about it later and work out a way that things might work better for you both the next time."

ACCORDING to Murray, the older children get the more appropriate it is for them to make choices. "It's appropriate for children to express some choices and for us to help them distinguish between what are valid choices and what is simply unco operative behaviour. We ourselves need to be able to distinguish between the two.

"If a child won't tidy his room, give choices. Suggest he can watch his favourite TV programme and tidy his room or that he can choose not to tidy the room and not to watch the TV. Giving them a choice works better than punishment."

There are times when parents, too, have to be stubborn. "If there is a potential danger, there is no compromise," says Murray. "We should not be afraid to do what is right for our children's safety and secretly they will respect us for this and even be relieved.