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What to do with a Non-compliant Child: Tips to Increase Obedience

Laura Kuehn, LCSW
Written by Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Do you have a child who rarely obeys the first time? Increase the likelihood that your “obedience challenged” child will comply with a role play technique called “obedience drills”.

Do you have a child who just can’t seem to obey the first time? You are consistent, clear and provide appropriate consequences when they don’t obey, but for some reason, they just don’t “get it.” These kids like to rationalize, debate, and discuss the pros and cons of why they should or (more likely) should not do what you are asking them to do. Often, if you give them choice A or B, they choose C. These children can be frustrating to handle on a daily basis, but there are some things you can do to lessen the impact.

First, increase their awareness. For some kids, this type of response to any request is innate; it’s embedded deep in the fiber of their beings. They want to know why, how, how long, what for, etc. Accepting something at face value just doesn’t come naturally to them. While these attributes are great for researchers and lawyers, they make for lousy attributes in a child. The next time your son or daughter responds to an explicit instruction with a question or the beginnings of a debate, pause and say, “Do you see what you just did there? I asked you to do something and your immediate response was to ask a question.” Discuss the importance of first time obedience, but more importantly, trust. Children need to develop trust in their parents. They need to have assurance that they will be taken care of and not asked to do something that is meaningless or unsafe.

Second, ignore the barrage of questions. Every parenting book out there says that ignoring is a great parental skill to have. Toddler having a tantrum? Ignore her. Child snapping gum over and over again for attention? Ignore him. Sounds easy enough, but in this particular situation, parents often find it very hard to ignore the follow up assault of questions or “facts” that, on the surface, could be legitimate. For example, let’s say you ask your debate-prone daughter to wash her hands before dinner to which she responds, “But I really have to go to the bathroom!” Be careful, something like this could be a power play. Sometimes the responses are nothing more than a challenge of authority and a desire to gain control. Get in the habit of repeating phrases such as, “You have been told all that you need to know to obey” or “I would love to hear what you have to say, but not until you have done what you have been asked to do.” If it was really important and not a power play, the burning comment or question will still be important once the task has been completed. Remember, your word is enough. Saying anything else but the original direction given, communicates the opposite.

Third, when all else fails, do some obedience drills. This is not as militant as it sounds. It is really pretty simple and is very similar to role play. On a day when first time obedience has been particularly hard, carve out some time to practice some drills. Explain to your child that it is not a game, it is not for fun, but rather it is practice that his behavior during the day demonstrated he is in need of. Make sure you do not present it as a punishment either. Approach it in a matter of fact way, much as you would a homework assignment or a driving lesson (but maybe not with as much fear!). Here are some guidelines:

1) Have him sit somewhere of your choosing.
2) Give an instruction. Make it clear, simple with kindness in your voice and on your face and with eye contact. You can start with having him put something away. “Take the CD case and put it on the book shelf and then have a seat again.”
3) Give some instructions that will not make sense such as “Open the pantry, get a box of cereal, place it on the kitchen table and return to your seat.” The purpose of this is not to play head games, but to give him practice in complying with an instruction about which he may not have all the information he would like. This ambiguity can be unsettling for some kids, but great practice in trusting the intentions of a parent.
4) Give multi-step instructions to older children. This will help your child gain some practice maintaining focus when asked to do this in “real” life.
5) Point out his pitfalls. If his instant reaction is to ask a question, help him to see his bent toward challenging an instruction. Explain that the questions are not bad in and of themselves, but that his timing is off. Once the task is completed, he can then ask his question or make his comment.
6) Continue until you have a sense that he has achieved the message intended by the lesson.

First time obedience does not have to be the holy grail of parenting. It is achievable and reasonable to expect, even for the most challenging of children. These ideas will not solve all of your issues with first time obedience, but they can help the child who has an innate struggle with this issue overcome his barriers to hear and comply.

. Please note: This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace professional counseling. Read our full disclaimer here.

About Laura

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura is a licensed clinical social worker with a specialization in children and families. CfP is the place she combines some of her very favorite things: writing, parenting and God's word. She loves encouraging parents to build their families upon Jesus, the one true Cornerstone. She is happily married to a wonderfully supportive husband and is the mother of two delightfully inspiring children.


  • do u have a book…that would help me with my concern child that is only 6 and he had two younger siblings…

    • Hi Nellie – Here are a few good books that you could check out:

      *Parenting Young Children: Systematic Training for Effective Parenting of Children Under Six by Dinkmeyer and McKay,

      *Transforming the Difficult Child: The Nurtured Heart Approach by Glasser and Easley

      *Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected by Susan Stiffleman.

      I hope these help you get started in the right direction! Thanks for stopping by.

      God bless,

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