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How to Parent Passive Disobedience

boy alone with phone- dealing with passive disobedience
Laura Kuehn, LCSW
Written by Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Disobedience comes in two flavors: passive and overt. In this post we will examine passive disobedience, what it looks like and how you can effectively respond. Next time, we will look more closely at overt disobedience.

What passive disobedience looks like

Misbehavior comes in all shapes and sizes. But when children fail to respond or comply with a parental instruction, it can be seen as opposite sides of the same coin. A child can be either passively disobedient or overtly disobedient in response to an instruction.

A child who engages in passive disobedience will have this sort of reaction to an instruction:

Mom: Please get off your iPad and fold the laundry.

Child: Okay Mom (but doesn’t do it)

If you have given your child an instruction and they say “Sure thing” but then 20 minutes later you notice nothing has changed, try to think about why your child is taking that path towards disobedience. Figuring out what is going on under the hood is always the first step.

Why kids passively disobey

1) They figured out that you are too busy to follow-through

Your child may have learned along the way that saying, “Sure thing, Mom” is the best way to get out of doing what they don’t want to do while causing the least disruption to doing what they want to do. This may be because they have learned over time that you simply forget about the instruction you gave as soon as you leave the room. You gave an instruction, they said “okay,” you checked it off your list, and you went on to the next thing. This can lead to a blow up later, but your child will likely find that the benefit of continuing to do what they want to do when then want to is worth the price.

2) They would obey, but are too focused on what they are currently doing to hear what you are saying

Some kids, like grown-ups, get really involved in what they are doing that the reflex of saying “okay” is just that, a reflex. But they were not really present when they said it, and they may not have heard any or all of the instruction. We often assume the worst in our kids, but sometimes what looks like disobedience is really something else.

3) They had every intention of obeying but got distracted

Maybe your child got up from what they were doing, headed off to do it, but saw something more fun along the way. Kids do not have the cognitive capacity to delay gratification well. It takes practice and skill and even many adults do not have this mastered. Think about it: when was the last time you decided to do something, got caught up in something else only to realize that an hour has gone by and you haven’t achieved your goal. It’s the same for your kids. The only difference is that the expectation is external with your kids and internal for you.

So what can parents do about this type of disobedience? Here are a few tips.

How to respond to passive disobedience

1) Make eye contact first

Kids who are engrossed in something need to shift to transition to a new task. Looking up, making eye contact is a great way to create that pre-transition shift. Get eye contact before you deliver your instruction. You can learn more about how to do that here.

2) Wait for movement before leaving the room

An absent-minded, “Okay Mom” may have been uttered but your child may not have actually heard what you asked them to do. You can wait a few seconds for movement and if nothing happens you can say, “Hey, you said ‘okay’ but I noticed you haven’t gotten up. I am wondering if you heard what I asked you to do?” If they say, “yes” ask them to repeat it back to you. They may just need that extra nudge of accountability to get to it.

3) Get curious

You can say something like, “I noticed you are not doing what I asked you to. Do you have any questions?” In response to these questions, your child might say, “Yes, Mom, I’m going to do it, I’m almost done. Could I just have two more minutes?” If that works for you in the moment, you can give them the two minutes and set a timer. If not, you might have to say something like, “I understand you need two minutes to finish, but this needs to be done now. You can finish that when you’ve done what I asked you to.”

4) Problem- solve

If your child is VERY passive and simply won’t do what you ask despite these efforts above, you can remove whatever is holding his attention and say, “It looks like we have a problem. I asked you to do something. You clearly don’t want to do it right now. How can we resolve this?” This approach may not sit well with you. When faced with this level of passivity you may find yourself having all sorts of thoughts like, How dare he disobey me! or He is so lazy! That anger and desire for control is normal but you don’t have to act on it. It will only create a power struggle. Passive kids can be very controlling and they get control by controlling your emotions.

I want you to hold a long view. By asking “How can we resolve this?” you are not giving in. You are building skills. Your goal as a parent is to teach your kids skills on how to handle doing something they don’t want to. They will face that many times in their lives in school and at their jobs. The home is a wonderful training ground.

5) Place it in their hands

If you child still passively refuses, is unwilling to problem-solve with you, you can simply say, “I can see that you are choosing to go your own way. This still needs to get done. So I will be holding on to ___________ until it’s completed.” Alternatively, you can tell them that their day has timed out until the task is completed. This means that any and all requests will be met with, “I’d be happy to consider that as soon as you do what I asked you to do.” How long they drag it out is up to them.

6) Work on skills outside moment

After the situation is resolved, your work is not done. Your child still needs skills. How you teach them these skills will be dependent upon their age, temperament and personality. You want to do this work away from the time in question so that everyone is calm and your child is teachable.

Ways to work on skills:

1) Role play – switch roles and have your child give you the instruction

2) Rote practice –  make practicing the skill a game and time your child to see how fast he can follow an instruction.

3) Work on the four components of following an instruction-

a) diversion of attention from the task at hand (ask – “What would be a good way to get your attention?”)

b) attending to an instruction (say – “It’s important to make eye contact when someone is speaking to you.”)

c) delay of gratification (ask – “What are some things you can say to yourself when you want to do something but can’t do it right now?”)

d) motivation (say – “It can be hard to do things you don’t want to. What helps motivate you?”)

Next time we will look at overt disobedience. There are different underlying reasons and therefore different ways to handle it.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for treatment from a qualified mental health professional. Cornerstones for Parents is not liable for any advice, tips, techniques, and recommendations the reader chooses to implement.

About Laura

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura is a licensed therapist who offers individual and parent counseling to individuals in Connecticut. Cornerstones for Parents is the place she combines some of her favorite things: writing, parenting and God's word. She is happily married with a young adult son and a teenage daughter.

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