How to calm down when your child won't listen

“Listen, Linda! Honey, listen! Listen!”

One of my favorite viral youtube videos is this child arguing with his mom, trying to convince her that it’s okay for him to have cupcakes for dinner. As cute and entertaining as it is, it brings up a universal truth about parenting:

It’s extremely frustrating when your child won’t listen to you.

I experience this often enough working as a PT, especially this past week. I think the kids I see are tired of being home all the time and are ready to get back to normal life. Aren’t we all.

While I’m usually pretty good at staying calm and letting it roll off my back, I was frustrated a few times this week. I mean, what’s the point in doing PT if a kid doesn’t want to do any of the activities? It’s so frustrating when you’re trying to do something with a kid, and it just devolves into screaming, crying, or a child looking me straight in the eye and definitively stating, “No, I’m not doing that.” My heart sinks, my throat catches a little, and I feel like a failure. It can be absolutely infuriating and disheartening at the same time!

When it gets to me and I feel my temperature rising, I want to calm down and handle the situation well, but it’s so hard! When I’m all worked up it’s not easy to calm down and think of better solutions. So I created this 3-step process to help.

1. Take a Deep Breath

Let’s be honest, breathing doesn’t fix these situations. I get it. I know it’s cliché advice, but just hear me out.

When I get frustrated, I have a really hard time thinking of good solutions. It’s like my brain completely goes blank when I need it the most. It does makes sense though, because our brain interprets that frustration as a threat, and it goes into fight/flight/freeze mode. When our brain is trying to survive, it doesn’t let us think of good solutions, it just tells us to follow one of those three instincts!

The easiest way to influence that system in our brain and stop the fight/flight/freeze reaction is to take some slow, deep breaths. Deep breathing is not my solution for these situations, rather it’s my gateway to solutions.

2. Step back and see the big picture

At the time, whatever you want your child to do can feel like the most important thing in the world.

In my line of work it sounds like this, “If this kid doesn’t do their stretches, they’re going to have to get surgery!” “If this kid doesn’t get stronger, they’re never going to walk!” “If I end this session early, then it means I’m losing money!”

Everything seems so serious! But is it really? Are a few days of stretching lost here and there really going to change whether a kid needs surgery? And if a kid doesn’t do a few exercises here and there is it really going to affect their walking? And if I miss a few hours of work here and there, is it really going to affect my income that much?

Probably not. It’s not that big of a deal in the long run.

It helps me calm down when I remember that this small instance doesn’t matter much in the big picture.

3. Remember that your child is simply trying to meet their needs

When a child is refusing to cooperate, it’s not because I’m failing at making them cooperate, it’s simply because they are trying to meet their own needs.

Take the kid in the video for example. He wasn’t trying to upset his mother by eating cupcakes before dinner, but he probably had a sugar craving, and his body and mind told him, “Eat the cupcakes!” At 3 years old how is he supposed to ignore that? I mean, I have enough of a hard time with that as an adult!

Now, obviously, I’m not saying that we should just let kids eat cupcakes for dinner. However, understanding why a child is being so defiant, and understanding that they are simply dealing with very real physical and mental needs can go a long way to helping us calm down and treat them with more compassion.

While it’s true that all children fight for their needs to be met, I feel kids with disabilities have to fight even more to get their needs met because the world is simply not set up for them. They are overstimulated by their environment, they constantly have their boundaries broken by doctors poking and prodding them, or they struggle with self esteem because they’re always told they’re not enough and need to be fixed.

So is it really any wonder they refuse to participate in some PT activities with me to avoid overstimulation, their boundaries being violated, or feeling like a failure?

Not at all.

I really do try to help kids meet their needs, and sometimes it does help them participate, but I’m not going to be successful at that 100% of the time. And when I'm not successful, it’s best to remember that I'm not failing at making a kid cooperate, rather they are dealing with very real physical and mental needs and they need my understanding and compassion.


So when your child is saying, “Listen Linda!” and trying to convince you that they should of course be able to eat cupcakes for dinner, simply take a few deep breaths, step back to see the big picture, and remember your child is simply trying to meet their own needs.

Then you’ll be calm enough to handle the situation in the best way possible.

I want to hear about your experience: Do you struggle with your child not listening to you? Do you get upset about it? Tell me in the comments section below.

Do you know a parent who struggles when their kid doesn’t listen to them? Use the social buttons below to share it with them!

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