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Behaving — Non-Compliance

Non-Compliant Behavior in Childhood

Angry girl with hand up.

Marcy Willard


Last modified 31 Aug 2023

Published 11 Jan 2022

What is Non-Compliance in Childhood?

Non-compliance in childhood is not following the rules. 

When a child is noncompliant, these moments can be so frustrating for a parent or teacher. This level of frustration may lead an adult to go straight to consequences or punishment. Research shows that attention for good behavior, teaching, guidance, and positive reinforcement are more successful interventions for childhood non-compliance.

A child may fail to follow rules because of impulsivity, not even intentionally breaking the rule. For example, the child may simply forget that the teacher said they must stay seated until dismissed for recess.  

Some children may break rules on purpose or without thinking because the rule does not make sense to them. Some children, teens, and adults are rule followers, doing what they are asked to do consistently. Other children are less compliant and may think of the rules as a ‘guideline,’ rather than a ‘must.’  

If non-compliance or disobedience is a concern, you will notice the child often gets in trouble, which can be an issue at school, at home, and in the community. A child who is always in trouble may have feelings of sadness or low self-esteem. A child’s feelings can impact how they approach interactions at school, home, and in the community. We want to encourage positive interactions with little ones whenever it is possible. 

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Symptoms of Non-Compliance in Children

  • Refusals: not doing what you say.
  • Defiance: acting defiant, yelling ‘NO!’ or running away
  • Ignores instructions: forgetting or ignoring directions from adults
  • Selective listening: saying, “I didn’t hear you!”
  • Excuses: making excuses for not getting things done
  • Incomplete tasks: appearing unable to follow through with tasks you assign
  • Irritable: huffing and puffing around when asked to do a small chore
  • Tuning out: not listening to the teacher or other adult

Some children do not follow directions. You may say, “get up and get dressed.” Twenty minutes later, you re-enter the bedroom to find your child wearing one sock and their underwear, staring out the bedroom window.

Sometimes, distractions can be a huge factor in following directions. Other times, children may not be able to shift attention from a preferred task to a non-preferred task very easily. The computer or TV can be reinforcing to a child, which means that it may capture their interest.

Your child may struggle to shift to doing something that is not fun, like making the bed or putting away laundry. You may ask 3 times for your child to complete a chore and get an “okay” followed by continued hyper-focus on finishing that level of their video game.

After touching your child on the arm, they may say, “I didn’t hear you! You never told me!” Other children may simply declare, “I don’t want to” and proceed to have a temper tantrum. Often, you may feel it was not worth it to ask for that chore to be completed in the first place.

You may be surprised that your previously compliant child yells ‘NO’ in your face and wanders off to do their own thing. As a parent, you may be scratching your head, wondering about where you went wrong.

Causes of Non-Compliance in Children

Underlying problems for non-compliance could be comprehension, inattention or impulsivity, autism, behavior disorder, or emotional symptoms. It also may be a sign of a gifted profile. In some cases, it’s simply part of normal development. 

  • Ages & stages: some seemingly stubborn children are simply learning to assert their own will and establish independence. For example, a three-year-old child is in what psychologists call the ‘first adolescence.’ At this age, kids may get sassy and refuse to do tasks frequently. This behavior is generally not a cause for concern. Remember, your child needs to eventually establish a sense of right and wrong on their own. This sense does not mean simple compliance with your instructions, but rather they learn a sense of autonomy and authentic, enduring values. [1]
  • Gifted children often reject direction from authority. They can have somewhat of a non-conforming nature. In this case, it is important for parents to be more explicit about the rules and the rationale behind each rule. If you are consistent and persistent as a parent, you are doing your job. Do not expect immediate change. Rather, expect your child to learn accountability and to have gradually increasing responsibility. 
  • Comprehension: Another consideration when your child is not following directions is comprehension. Make sure your child knows what you are asking them to do. Have your child repeat back what they will do first. As soon as they do it, provide praise and give the next direction. Do not assume your child is refusing to follow directions until you ensure your instructions are clear and easy to follow.
  • Attention issues: A child with attention, planning, organizing, and impulsivity may be non-compliant with adult requests. Sometimes children have difficulty focusing long enough to digest the information. They may struggle with planning and organizing their time to get tasks completed. [2]
  • Rigidity and challenges with change in routine can be related to autism or ADHD. Often, children will prefer to do things their own way because of poor perspective taking or anxiety over change or uncertainty. Often a rigid child will react very quickly with refusals or an angry attitude, and the parent will instantly react with an irritated or upset demeanor. Resist the urge to be as rigid as your child. Model flexibility and give your child some level of autonomy and choice whenever possible

The important thing to think about in the list above is, “does this behavior appear to be in my child’s control or not?”

If it’s not, consider a visit with a psychologist or school counselor for support. If it is volitional, a behavioral therapist can likely help you get things under control.

What to Do About Non-Compliance in Children

If you are concerned about your child’s disobedience, take these steps. 

  1. Keep it positive: First, make interactions with your child as pleasant and positive as possible. Take a step back, only give an instruction you are prepared to enforce. If you are tired and don’t feel like a battle, don’t ask. Provide directions or instructions that your child is likely to follow.
  2. Give discrete instructions: As you increase the expectations, break things into manageable steps, one at a time. Say, “please get the sheets from the laundry” rather than, “fold the laundry and put it away.” Say “please put your shoes in the closet” rather than “clean up this mess.”
  3. Reward good behavior: Provide motivating rewards for completion of tasks. Play a game as a family, have ice cream, earn a weekly trip to a dollar store, thrift shop, or shop the dollar bin at your local grocery store. If your child does not comply, do not provide the reward. However, make sure there are other times to try to earn rewards.
  4. Stay calm and consistent: If a tantrum ensues, stay close to your child. Remove attention and wait to see a behavior you like. Model calm behavior and avoid any arguments when your child is upset. Stay firm, calm, and consistent.
  5. Enjoy your child daily: No matter what happens, always have some fun, relaxed, noncritical time together each day, even if this time is just 10 minutes to read a book. 

When to Seek Help for Non-Compliance in Children

Conscious parenting

Before you panic, make sure your child’s behaviors aren’t an artifact of your own parenting style. A new understanding of parenting has emerged in the work by psychologist and parenting expert Shefali Tsabary. 

In her hallmark book, ‘The Awakened Family,’ she writes, “We all have the capacity to raise children who are highly resilient and emotionally connected. However, many of us are unable to because we are blinded by modern misconceptions of parenting and our own inner limitations.” [1]

Dr. Tsabary reminds us that we parents come into this parenting role with our own baggage. We have ‘left-overs’ from our own childhood experiences. There is no perfect parent. So, it stands to reason that some of your child’s actions are stemming from your own challenges. As a parent, you are in your own phase of growth as a person. 

She asks parents to think about how much of the time they spend in conscious, connected moments with their children. Her books remind us that after our children grow up, the only thing that the parent and child have left  is the relationship. These books give parents an important reminder. Your fears and insecurities can be coming from an unreasonable level of commitment to your own desires. 

For example, a parent who never did sports as a child demands that their child not quit soccer. Or, the parent insists the child get straight A’s due to their own fear that the child will ‘never succeed in life’ if they don’t start now. Remember, your 7th grader will not be going off to college any time soon. Be patient and supportive. Be the parent you wish you had.  

Normal developmental struggles

Through the course of development, typical kids will have times where they are just plain difficult. They huff and puff around the house, refusing to help. They throw tantrums at the smallest request. These moments are generally not a time to worry. 

You will want to stay calm, consistent, and supportive while maintaining the rules and boundaries. Although every child is different (and children who are Gifted or have ADHD can be especially challenging in this regard), generally these lapses in good behavior are temporary and survivable. Stay positive and watch closely for the behaviors to improve as your child matures.

Persistent irritability or angry outbursts

If your child’s behavior is continuously leaning toward the negative, it may be time to get help. You will want to watch your child. See if their ‘bad attitude’ goes away after a while or if it continues to persist. 

Sometimes these behaviors are a sign that your child is in emotional distress. Check to see whether there is a peer issue at school or a recent event that has caused this behavior pattern. If your child is constantly irritable, it will be important to seek the help of a therapist or counselor. There may be issues like ‘cognitive distortions’ (seeing everything in black and white, taking everything personally, or assuming the worst in people). Most therapists can help your child develop a healthier perspective.

Unsafe behaviors

If you are concerned about extreme, dangerous, or aggressive behaviors, it is time to get help. It is not typical for even a kindergarten-aged child to be aggressive toward peers or parents. Occasional sibling rivalry, yes. But, lots of aggression in your school-age child or teenager is cause for concern. 

You can consult with an Applied Behavior Analyst (ABA) or licensed therapist for support. Sometimes, a simple behavior plan can be implemented at home. Other times, you and your child will need to learn the principles of behavior modification to bring peace to your household.

Further Resources on Non-Compliance in Children

  • Psychotherapist or play therapist: to treat emotional symptoms and help with social skills training, planning and organization
  • ABA therapist: to treat behavior; or to conduct an analytical Functional Analysis of the behavior that can help guide treatment
  • Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider a full assessment to look at symptoms in mental health and/or behavioral context
  • Psychiatrist: to prescribe and manage psychotropic medication for inattention, impulsivity; stimulant medication for ADHD is effective in a high percentage of children with focus and impulsivity challenges

Similar Conditions to Non-Compliance

  • Attention problems: difficulty with attention or distractibility will often lead to challenges following directions
  • Perseverating: challenges changing tasks due to excessive focus on a certain topic can impact a child’s ability to follow directions
  • Depression: underlying feelings of depression can cause a child to be forgetful or distracted which may result in non-compliance
  • Attachment: a history of abuse or exposure to inappropriate behavior may cause a child to be spacey, disconnected, or angry, which may lead to non-compliance
  • Conduct problems: deliberate avoidance or rule-breaking may be at the root of the non-compliance.
  • Verbal comprehension: misunderstanding of directions may lead to non-compliance. It is important to make sure your child understands the instructions they are expected to follow. 

References on Non-Compliance

[1] Shefali Tsabary Ph.D (2016) The Awakened Family: A Revolution in Parenting

[2] Barkley, Russell A. (2013). Taking charge of ADHD, 3rd edition: The complete, authoritative guide for parents.

[3] Shefali Tsbary Ph.D. (2010) The Conscious Parent. Transforming ourselves, Empowering Our Children. 

Book Resources for Non-Compliance

Durand, V. Mark & Hieneman, Meme (2008). Helping Parents with Challenging Children Positive Family Intervention Facilitator Guide (Programs That Work).

Greene, Ross W. (2001). The explosive child: A new approach for understanding and parenting easily frustrated, chronically inflexible children.

Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

Purvis, Karyn B., & Cross, David R., & Sunshine, Wendy Lyons (2007). The connected child: Bring hope and healing to your adoptive family.

Seigel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2014). No drama-discipline: The whole-brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child’s developing mind.