Why kids don’t do things they know how to do?
I must hear this complaint at least 20 times a day.
My child knows how to get dressed/ put their shoes on/ make their bed/ play nicely/ put their lunchbox in their lunch bag/ climb into their car seat…whatever.
When I ask them to, they refuse. They tell me to do it for them.
They whine and say they can’t. Often times they won’t even let me do it for them, they just say it’s impossible over and over and then I have to wrestle them through it.
Why do kids refuse to do things they know how to do? What do you do about it?
Things they’ve done without incident 42 thousand times before? Simple things? Things they will do at other times without issue?
The simple answer for those of you who have been around the block with me a few times is…
Stress. They’re dysregulated.
I know you’re likely tired of hearing me say it but that’s what everything come back to.
Stress. Dysregulation. A lack of access to their executive functioning skills.
Let’s break it down.
I want you to imagine that everyone has a gas tank, just like your car. Sometimes you wake up fresh as a daisy, happy and calm, ready to take on the world.
Other days…not so much, right?
Most days, not so much, I’m sure.
Just like your car sometimes is sitting in your driveway with a full tank, but most of the time it’s somewhere between full and totally empty and we unconsciously budget our energy for the tasks that we expect to take on.
Everything we do, every tiny task, every thought we have takes energy. EVERYTHING.
It’s just a matter of how much energy it takes and those tasks can vary in how much energy they take, which adds a layer of complexity to it.
For instance, pretty much none of us budgets energy for sitting down at our computer and getting on the internet anymore, right?
In the 90s we had to budget energy for sitting down, getting the computer booted up, sitting through that awful dying robot sound, and then finally getting connected so we could do what we needed to do.
Now we’ve reduced that budget to almost nothing because we expect to be constantly connected but what happens when you sit down and the internet isn’t connected?
Now something you budgeted no energy for is consuming a tonne of energy right?
You have to check all your settings, check your router, call your ISP, wait on hold, troubleshoot with them, reboot your computer that hasn’t been turned off since you took it out of the box, etc.
Usually, this process takes at least half an hour at which point you’re sitting down finally getting to your work with way less juice in the tank to get it done, let alone time.
You aren’t going to work as long, or as hard or you’re going to take a break you might go grab a coffee or watch a funny video or two before getting into it.
As adults, we create this routine of energy expenditure followed by a break very organically because we have the autonomy to do so and because we’re pretty proficient at self-regulating at this point.
Our breaks can usually be pretty few and far between.
Children don’t have that autonomy, they require frequent breaks, and even if we give them breaks they don’t know what will help them regulate effectively.
The things that sucks all our energy while we do a task are called executive functioning skills.
Using our internet example you have to think of all the different things that may be interfering with your connection: that’s using working memory, flexible thinking, self-monitoring, and organization skills.
You have to check all those things, and often in a very specific order: that’s using planning and prioritizing, working memory, flexible thinking, organization, self-monitoring, and task initiation skills. You often have to restrain yourself from lashing out or tossing your laptop out the window.
That’s using impulse and emotional control skills.
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In this one, small, short but completely unexpected task you’ve literally engaged all your executive skills.
If any one of those skills is weak if any one of them requires more energy for you to use than you have available at that moment, your brain won’t let you do it. It’ll stall you.
This is basically your brain going “We don’t have the ability to do this and stay safe (because we always have to have some energy in our tank to run away or fight- just in case we get attacked survival instincts.) We need to take a break first and refill our tank.”
We recognize this in an adult context very easily because if your coworker just spent 45 minutes getting the internet back up and you immediately pull him into a meeting and he says “Whoa- I just spent an hour messing with the internet, I’m going to get a coffee first and then I’ll join you.”
You don’t question him on it, you don’t tell him he can have his coffee after the meeting you let him go take a short break and then join you when he’s ready, right?
When a child is using all their energy to use their skills to get dressed (which uses planning and prioritizing, working memory, organization, self-monitoring, flexible thinking and task initiation skills…) and then immediately turn around and ask them to use those skills AGAIN to put their shoes on and get in the car and they protest- they’re defiant.
They’re not listening.
Yes, I recognize that your child is protesting in a much less socially acceptable way than your adult coworker would but again, they’re an adult who is much more proficient at this and has the personal autonomy available to them.
They don’t have to budget energy to deal with people protesting against their protest.
I have seen this exact scenario play out whether a child whines about it or says very politely: “can you help me?” because we didn’t budget energy for this unexpected demand, either.
We insist, no, you can do it yourself. You’ve done it before. Why won’t you do it now? And now we’re both dysregulated.
How can we cut this dynamic off at the knees?
In the moment, once you recognize why this is happening: that your child is dysregulated and needs a break.
It can paralyze most parents because we have shit to do and places to go, and generally the realization that our child is dysregulated also brings to our attention that we’re getting dysregulated.
Often we’ve already planned our break.
Whether we know it or not. In our minds we’re like: the kid’s gonna put their shoes on, get in the car, and then I can mentally check out while I drive to daycare.
I can put on music and just focus on driving.
We budgeted our energy, and now that budget is getting blown out of the water with their stalling.
They’re asking for a break before we planned it either because they don’t know what the plan is they can’t see that a break is right around the corner or because they don’t see what you planned as a break, as a break.
It’s not actually regulating for them to sit in a car listening to your music.
The first thing you’ve gotta do is figure out what is actually calming to your child.
Probably the most common question I get is what do kids find regulating?
I really wish I had a blanket answer to that but the truth is that it varies from kid to kid. From person to person.
What I find regulating is not what my husband finds regulating.
What my oldest finds regulating is not what his brother finds regulating.
What my baby nephew finds regulating is going to be different from what my brother, my SIL, and my kids find regulating.
It’s a process to figure this out.
I can say that usually there’s a big sensory component to it, and usually it’s something that they’re already doing in a really maladaptive way.
For instance, if your child refuses to put their shoes on and lays on the ground kicking their feet, finding a way for them to kick their feet in a safe, productive way is usually a good starting point.
The second is to give them the space to calm down.
The average amount of time it takes for the nervous system to calm down (aka to get a full tank of gas) is 20 minutes.
If they are are being actively engaged in regulation.
Which, I know seems like a long time, but most parents are spending more than 20 minutes dealing with a meltdown, and once you recognize this pattern you can start planning for the need of a break and put it into your routine.
Again this is if they’re being actively engaged in regulation. Many parents will say to me “I gave them 20 minutes to chill out and they’re still upset!” Well, yeah. They don’t know how to calm themselves down- you haven’t taught them. Just removing demands is not a regulation break.
Finally, we need to build those executive skills that are draining so much energy.
Using our gas tank analogy again- this is like taking a really steep hill and grading it down until it’s flat.
It takes a lot less gas to go over a flat road than up a very steep hill.
Which ultimately means the gas in your tank lasts longer so you can go further, right?
When we strengthen our children’s skills, the energy they have available lasts longer because using each skill requires less energy.
This means the time your child needs between those regulation breaks gets longer, so they take up less time in your day.
Yes, if you only start teaching your child to regulate when they’re 5 or 6 or 7 years old, this is going to feel very labour intensive at first because you’re having to build skills and enforce regulation breaks while also breaking established behaviour habits.
This is why I harp so much on being proactive about building skills because it’s a lot easier to just build them from the ground up than to remediate the holes.
Either way, it can feel overwhelming and frustrating.
Especially when it doesn’t quite work out the way the instructions on the tin say they will children are human beings.
They aren’t robots.
Every family I have ever worked with has had some unique aspect to how their child regulates, how they build skills, and how they reduce stressors.
None of us is the same! And that’s okay!
The framework still applies it’s just a matter of tweaking how we apply it to fit your unique family and circumstances.
This is what we walk you through in ParentAbility: taking these concepts I can’t shut up about, and applying them to your family in a way that is completely unique to you!
Every single family in ParentAbility is working on the exact same things but in completely different ways and that’s how it’s supposed to be!
A family that lives in Canada is not going to have the same routine and demands and resources as a family living in Dubai, or the UK, or Costa Rica, or Hong Kong!
I go over this concept of stress behaviour and how it impacts our kids’ behaviour more thoroughly in my 1-hour free class: How to Get Your Kids to Listen and End Tantrums Without Yelling, Shaming, or Time-Outs.
If you want to dig a bit deeper on this and figure out if ParentAbility is the right fit for your family, I really encourage you to check that out as a next step.
I also encourage you to come join the Parenting Posse if you’re not ready to join ParentAbility, the Posse is my free peer-support Facebook group and we have a fantastic community there ready to talk it through with you.