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Words to Use When Your Child Refuses to Start a Task



Quick Tips from Mary's books "Raising Your Spirited Child", and "Kids, Parents and Power Struggles" 

“It’s time to do your work.” Whether it is time to begin schoolwork, practice an instrument, or simply play independently, these may be fighting words at your house. But they do not have to be. When “getting started,” is an on-going issue, you can utilize the problem-solving skills Lynn and I introduced previously. 


Developed by: Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, Ed.D and Lynn Jessen, MA.

 The formula: 

  1. Define the problem. 
  2. Identify the child’s feelings and needs. 
  3. Invite the child to collaborate in brainstorming potential solutions.
  4. Select a solution that works for everyone. 

You will notice that the formula for problem-solving skills remains the same, no matter what the issue. 

Define the problem. Select a time when your child is calm – not when you are in the middle of a battle, or it is time to start the work. 

  • "I’ve noticed you are finding it difficult to start your work." 

Identify the child’s feelings and needs. 

  • "What’s up?"
  • "What about on-line learning do you not like?" 
  • What about practicing do you not like?  If your child has no response, you can guess. I am going to make a guess that you do not like to do it by yourself. Is that right? 

Invite the child to collaborate in brainstorming potential solutions. 

  • "It’s almost time to do your schoolwork."
  • "Let’s make a visual plan so you know what to expect. I will help you. Let’s think of 3 things we could do together to make this better."

Hopefully, your child offers suggestions, but just like getting started with other things can be challenging, sometimes your child is also challenged to “start” problem solving with you and declares, “I’m not doing it. I hate it!” This is when you may be tempted to toss out a stream of potential solutions. “What if we did this... What if we did that...”  Despite the plethora of ideas offered your child remains stuck, unable to make a choice.  That is because sometimes, too many choices can overwhelm your child. You can see it, hear it, and sense it in his behavior as he shuts down on you. If that is your experience, take a deep breath to calm yourself.

Recognize your child is shutting down as a stress response. He is not just being stubborn. You can calm him and support him by letting him know he can count on you to lead the way. 

Select the solution that works for both of you. 

Often children need a limit to move to action. You can provide that by saying: 

“Sometimes there are things we must do, that we don’t like to do."

"I am going to set the timer for five minutes to give you time to think. If you cannot decide what will make it better, I will decide to sit with you and then I will know what the teacher is asking you to do. If you do not want to do the work during class time, we will do it later.”

If the timer goes off and your child has not decided, you will say to him, “I see you did not decide, so I will sit with you. If you do not want to do the work then, you can take a break to calm and then we will do it. 

Your child may vehemently protest, especially if he is intense and persistent. The ability to prioritize and make choices is a skill he is still learning. And because he does not yet have the ability to do it during this stressful time his arousal system is activating. The result is so much neural static going off in his brain he is unable to make a choice or brainstorm potential solutions.  If that is the case stay calm. Let him know he can eat or sleep, and spend time at his calming basket, but he will not be going onto other things such as electronics or going outside, until he sits with you. It may take several hours the first few times before he is calm enough to work with you. Hang in there. Despite his initial negative first reaction, you may notice he almost seems relieved. That is because when you do what you said you would do your child learns to trust you, and in the future is ready to work with you much more quickly. 

Wait a minute you may be thinking, the child was not included in deciding what would happen – except he was. He was given the opportunity to offer potential solutions but made a decision not to do so. 

Underlying problem solving is a value: 

 In our family we listen to one another and work together.

It is important for children to learn that through their behavior they make decisions. Their choice to not work with others means that in this case the adult will set the limit and make the choice. When the adult follows through, children quickly learn that if they want to be involved in the decision they need to participate. It is not acceptable to lock in. It is not acceptable to ignore the interests, feelings or needs of others. In healthy relationships individuals listen and work together.  This is not being mean. This is a parent teaching a child an important family value.

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