When Your Kids Won't Cooperate

Tips for Single Moms and Dads Dealing With Kids Who Won't Do What You Say

Father coloring with his daughter
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As a single parent, you already know how hard it is to do it all on your own. But when your kids won't cooperate, things can go downhill – fast. So what can you do to get your kids to listen, follow your directions, and tow the line, especially when you're at your most stressed? Use the following age-by-age tips to get results when your kids won't cooperate.

Get Your Toddler to Cooperate

Bear in mind that toddlers are wired to express their independence. They're determined to do it all on their own, without your help ... that is, when they're not clinging to you for reassurance. When you face the following scenarios, which are common to single moms and dads, here's what you can do to get your toddler to cooperate:

  • When your toddler refuses to fall asleep alone. It may be time to rethink your child's bedtime routine. Is it consistent, and is your child's bedtime generally the same from night to night, even at your ex's house? To the extent that you can, create consistency so that your child knows what to expect. And when you need to enforce age-appropriate consequences, do so
  • Your child cries when it's time to go to your ex's house, and then cries again when it's time to come back home. This is typical for toddlers going through transitions. Staying calm and not overreacting will help. Try to be empathetic and upbeat while also pointing to some of the things you know your child is looking forward to. And as tempting as it is to skip a visit when your child resists, remember that sticking to the routines you've established is essential to helping your child adjust.
  • Your child falls apart easily after visits with your ex. Going back and forth can be emotionally exhausting for young kids. Do what you can to keep things light and easy on transition days. You may find that it's best to run your errands before your child comes home. Similarly, doing some advance meal-prep can help you carve out time for any extra cuddles your child may need upon returning. Paying attention to what works will help you create your own map for getting your child to cooperate – even when she's extra tired and cranky.

    Get Your School-Aged Child to Cooperate

    The beauty of this age is that your child's personality is really starting to come out. It's a time to try new things together and watch your child bloom, which is a lot of fun. But that doesn't mean the school-aged years are without challenges, especially when you're parenting solo. Here's a look at some of the issues you may face on a regular basis, and how to cope when your child won't cooperate at this age:

    • When your child wants your ex to attend every event. It's great that your child wants to spend more time with your ex, but it may not be feasible to have him or her attend every practice, game, and school event. To tackle this problem, ask yourself whether your kids are getting enough time with your ex, for starters. If not, consider changing your family's parenting time schedule for an additional boost, where needed. If things are already fairly equal, or it's just not possible to increase time with your ex, consider using calendar stickers to mark off events your ex will be attending. This does two things: it helps your child recognize that your ex is already at a fair amount of events (because there's a visual reminder), and it also sweetens the anticipation as shared events approach.
    • When your child refuses to eat certain foods, especially at your ex's during visits and overnights. It can be difficult to cope with picky eaters, especially when your kids are spending time with both of you and you're not sure what they've eaten at your ex's. Start by keeping a shared food log so you can both see what they're consuming in a given week. Then, change the end goal to one that's achievable – such as trying two new foods per week.
    • When your child leaves important things at home. The challenge here is that your child may expect you to run over to school or your ex's to drop off the forgotten items. In fact, some schools have now banned this practice in order to encourage kids to become more responsible and independent. On your end, you can help by creating a packing checklist your kids can use to get ready for overnights.

    Get Tweens and Teens to Cooperate

    Having kids who won't cooperate at this age can feel a lot like the challenges you faced when they were toddlers. They want more independence, and they're willing to dig in their heels on the smallest issue, just to show you they can. Here are some common challenges single parents face getting kids to cooperate at this stage, and what you can do to about them:

    • When your child refuses to attend visits or overnights with your ex. At this age, your kids have already established their own routines and friend groups. So reluctance to participate in visits and overnights may be caused in part by not wanting to miss out on important events with their friends. To counteract that anxiety, talk with your kids about what they are feeling. Then make a plan together for making sure they can participate in high-priority events without missing out on quality time with your ex. Being open to discussing the issue with your ex will also help. While that may not be comfortable for your kids, at least initially, remember that learning how to negotiate compromises is a positive life skill they need to develop.
    • Frequently misses deadlines for turning in homework assignments. It can be frustrating when you know your kids are capable of doing the work, but they're either not doing it or aren't bothering to turn it in. First, remember that your kids aren't 'too old' for you to reach out to their teachers for input on how to resolve this issue. At the same time, get a plan in place for teaching your kids how to track their own assignments. If the school allows smartphones, consider using one of the many homework apps available, which have the added benefit of allowing you to track their progress and check in now and then. If that's not an option, make sure they have a system for manually adding assignments to a homework calendar the 'old fashioned' way.
    • When your kids won't keep their rooms clean. This is the ultimate 'pick your battles' issue. While you want your child's room to be clean enough that he's not tripping over his belongings, it can help to redefine the 'win' you're looking for. In this case, it might be learning some general cleaning skills he'll need later in life, even if his bedroom isn't as clean as you'd like it to be. On the other hand, if your child has become a real 'pack rat,' you may need to coach him on how to sort and donate unused belongings. It can help, too, to model this by cleaning out a closet or two together. Once he gets the hang of evaluating what to keep, toss, or donate, he'll be able to apply the process to his own belongings with greater independence.