What to Do if a Child Won't Respond to Rules or Consequences

Parenting tips to help gain cooperation from a previously non-compliant child.

Posted Aug 29, 2018

As a psychologist, “effective parenting” is one of my favorite topics.

One, because children are such a gift, and I love seeing them grow up healthy, happy, and strong.

Two, because there’s so much misunderstanding about how to parent, how to implement positive discipline, what kinds of rules are appropriate for which age groups, and so on.

Something I hear from frustrated parents quite often, sounds along these lines:

“I’ve tried to set rules for my child. I’ve explained that there will be consequences for misbehavior. I did all of that…and it still had no effect! My child is still being [unruly / rude / defiant / lying / manipulating / procrastinating, etc] and nothing seems to work!”

Sound familiar?

A lot of parents find themselves stuck in this “nothing is working” scenario—feeling increasingly annoyed because their child doesn’t seem to be responding to their parenting approaches. Some parents have found it helpful to ask themselves the following four questions:

1. Am I applying consequences for rule-breaking consistently or just…sometimes?

The answer may be a sheepish “no” or “yes, but…” or “well, kind of…”

Consistency is essential in order for consequences to be effective.

If parents only apply consequences for violating a rule “sometimes,” then their child may quickly learn that their parents are inconsistent and unreliable. The child may then try to use this information to their advantage—for instance, a child may choose not to cooperate, thinking, “I’ll take a chance and not do my chores…maybe I won’t get a consequence.”

It can be productive for parents to try becoming more consistent before they decide that consequences “don’t work” for their child.

2. Is everyone on the same page?

Sometimes, other caregivers (babysitters, tutors, grandparents, etc.) aren’t “in the know” about the rules and consequences that parents have established, or are not enforcing the rules when parents are not around. That can be a problem.

Parents are the primary role models for their children, but these other role models are influential, too.

Parents would be wise to consider taking a leadership role and making sure everyone’s on the same page—for the well-being and benefit of their child.

3. Am I tracking my child’s behavior with a chart?

Creating a daily “responsibility chart” is a terrific way to outline rules, chores, and required behaviors for a child—along with descriptions of consequences for non-compliance.

Charts can seem like miracle-workers because they can put a quick end to arguments and debates about “fairness.” Everything is put “in writing,” so to speak.

If a child completes a chore (or follows a rule), they get a check mark or a gold star. No compliance? No check, no star, and then parents have an opportunity to ask their child, “What is the consequence for what you did / did not do?”

Using a chart system can help children to build self-reliance and independence. It can also help to build self-esteem, as a child begins to realize, “I can stay organized. I can complete things. I am awesome. I can do this!”

(Not sure how to create this kind of chart? A sample behavior chart, plus instructions on how to use charts effectively, is also covered in my guidebook for parents.)

4. What kinds of consequences am I applying? Are they strong enough?

Consequences tend to be most effective when a child’s favorite privilege is temporarily removed—TV, video games, a cellphone, sleepovers, playtime with friends, and so on.

If a consequence is not “strong” enough, a child is not likely to have much motivation to comply.

When parents set a firm rule, that they implement with love, and then apply a consequence for non-compliance, they are doing their child a huge service. They’re not being “mean.” They’re being an effective teacher.

After all, if parents don’t teach children that there are negative consequences for certain choices, who will?

So, before parents decide that their child is “immune” to rules and consequences, it can be helpful consider making the four adjustments outlined above. A previously non-compliant child might then respond quite differently to parenting.

And one day, when a little one is all grown up? They may be deeply grateful for their parents’ unconditional love, unflinching boundaries, and the vital life lessons that their parents instilled.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional or psychological advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always contact your qualified health provider before implementing or modifying any personal growth or wellness program or technique, and with any questions about your well-being.

Copyright © 2018 Dr. Suzanne Gelb, All rights reserved