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Difficult Parenting Situations Turned… Cooperative?

By Mir Kamin

I could write a book—scratch that, several books—about the journey my family has been on for the last eighteen months or so. When you have a teenager with mental health issues, life takes turns you never imagined, and anyone who tells you that one struggling child doesn’t affect the entire family is lying. My 15-year-old daughter is still learning to make peace with her own brain and body and place in this world. I would fight her battles for her and take her pain away if I could, but of course I can’t.

Mental health treatment for a minor becomes a family affair in very short order. Outpatient, inpatient; either way, at some point (or several points; it’s like some twisted psychiatric version of Groundhog Day) one or more people with lots of letters after their name turns to you, the parent, and wants to talk about your role in the current state of affairs. (This is a good time to grow a very thick skin, because it’s not as though you weren’t already secretly terrified that your child’s difficulties were somehow all your fault.) Chances are that regardless of your fitness as a parent during times of normalcy, you’ll need help providing the kind of parenting your child really needs in times of crisis.

In our particular case, without getting too much into specifics, I can assure you that as my daughter began to struggle, I first kicked into fix-it mode—the more trouble she had, the more I tried to love her out of it (spoiler: that doesn’t work) and arrange the world in a way that would be easier for her. Then we moved on to treatment mode—I will get you help and everything will be fine!—and during that time, various family therapies focused on us all learning that she could, and would, find her own way. This led to my daughter moving in with her father for a while (yeah, that’s another story), and when she returned home, it was to a lot of rules. Failure to comply with rules met with immediate consequences like loss of cell phone or computer access for a day.

It worked… sort of. It worked for a while, and then it didn’t. As my daughter started struggling again, every rule and consequence became a protracted power struggle. Everyone was miserable. So her therapist gave me a CD called Creating Cooperative Kids. I may have rolled my eyes. My kid is fifteen, not a toddler. And it’s not like she’s a delinquent or anything; she’s a very sensitive teenager who happens to have more than her fair share of challenges and happens to be convinced that her parents are big meanies. Was a CD was somehow going to change things for us?

I listened to the whole hour (as directed). Here’s some excerpts if you’re interested:

The upshot is simple: We want our children to learn to behave in ways that encourage cooperation from those around them, because that gives them the best shot at being happy humans in the world. “Do this because I said so” or “Do this because otherwise you’ll be punished” are directives that may work, but for some kids—kids like my daughter, for instance—they don’t work at all, and for others they’ll work in the short-term, but you still have a kid who lacks a basic internal motivation to do things because they’re simply the right thing to do. The system that this parenting guy Bill Corbett outlines calls for concrete steps towards cultivating this internal motivation. You outline expectations, make the kid repeat them back to you so you know they understand, and then you shut up and see what happens. Failure to meet expectations can be dealt with in one of two ways; either do nothing (oh, can you picture all the cringing I did while listening to this? do nothing??), or if you’re dealing with something that really needs to be addressed—say a mess is left in a common area of the house and you really want it picked up—you merely place a “loving, guiding hand” on the child’s back to steer them to the scene of the crime and stay completely silent. Kids are smart and bringing them to their unfinished task is all the reminder they’ll need (once they’re done going, “Mom? Mom! What?? Where are we going?”).

Stuck on that “do nothing” reaction? That one is crafty. Say the expectation is that my daughter will walk the dog every day after school, and say she chooses not to do it for a whole week. I say nothing. (I then die, privately, a hundred times over, because saying nothing is so crazy-making for me that it only took a day to realize how much badgering I used to engage in as a matter of course. Silence is hard. The good thing about talking less is that when you do talk, they listen more. Bonus!) But! Let’s say that after a week she asks to go out for ice cream with her friends. I am to look very contemplative and slightly disappointed, and reply with something like, “That sounds like you’re needing my cooperation to drive you for ice cream. But I’m feeling like you weren’t all that cooperative this week, so I don’t feel like I can do that. I’m sorry, honey. Ask me again next week.”

I’m not going to lie; I listened to this CD and first I thought it was crazy. Then I thought Corbett was crazy like a fox, but only for parents with little kids, or typical kids. After my initial righteous indignation I resolved to try it, even if only to prove to the therapist that this could never work with my headstrong teen.

We committed. We no longer take away the cell phone. Leisure computer usage is limited to a single hour per day (via parental controls, so we don’t need to keep tabs and there’s no way for her to “cheat”) to eliminate the possibility of endless time lost to “Facebook suck.” Late to bed no longer results in earlier bedtime the next night. I do not police homework. I smile, I tell her I love her, and I do not scold or correct or nag. The “loving, guiding hand” is sometimes an arm-tug to get her off the couch, but it seems to work. “Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot to clean up my mess. I’ll do that now.”

She had broken every single rule by day 3, clearly loving the new freedom. And then she brought up a school event she wants to attend. “Huh, sounds like you’re going to need my cooperation for that,” I observed. Her face changed. (I resisted the urge to yell, “Gotcha!”) Shortly after that conversation, I found her doing laundry and homework. Interesting.

It’s still early, but… I’m seeing glimmers of self-motivation. And quieter me is (surprise!) a much more pleasant person to be around. Magic solution? No. More cooperation? I think so. And I’ll take it.

Published April 30, 2013. Last updated April 30, 2013.
About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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  • Amy in CO

    April 30, 2013 at 3:54 pm

    Holy cow. I need to listen to this CD for sure. My 8 year old daughter is going to drive me crazy with her lack of “cooperation”. I don’t want to have to argue with her for the next 10 years.

  • Bill Corbett

    April 30, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    Hi Mir Kamin,
    Love you blog!  Thank you for giving my craziness a try.  The more you stick with it, the more success you’ll have.  You’re an awesome mom and I wish you all the best!  Please call on me if I can help further.

    • Mir Kamin

      April 30, 2013 at 4:48 pm

      Geez, your Google-fu is strong to have found this post so fast. 😉 Thanks for the encouragement!

      • Arnebya

        April 30, 2013 at 5:22 pm

        This response is awesome!

        Mir, I’d noticed that the quieter I became the more the kids seemed to want to help. When they see me cleaning, especially something I usually ask them to do, they’re more interested/inclined to either help or do something else, without my asking. It is hard, I agree, to simply be silent (because COME ON, YOU HAVE STEPPED OVER THESE PAPERS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FLOOR 18 TIMES SO I KNOW YOU SEE THEM!). I am going to continue to try, though. It works well with my 9 yr old, the pleaser, is starting to be more effective with my 12 yr old (the y’all owe me for my very existence one), but not so much with the 3 yr old. He’s 3. I got time. I think. For me, it’s the 12 yr old’s homework/participation in school. The more silent I am and less ragey I WILL COME TO THE SCHOOL AND SIT IN ALL OF YOUR CLASSES TO MAKE SURE YOU ARE DOING YOUR WORK, seems to be working (knocks the fake wood.)

  • Bill Corbett

    April 30, 2013 at 4:09 pm

    Correction… love YOUR blog!

  • […] New post over at Alphamom, about getting teens to cooperate. (Now that I’ve written it, of course, everything is going to blow up in my face. That’s how it works!) […]

  • Amanda

    April 30, 2013 at 4:52 pm

    What age is appropriate to start this? I’m intrigued, but I have a house full of youngins.

    • Mir Kamin

      April 30, 2013 at 4:55 pm

      Amanda, my understanding is that you can start basically as soon as they can repeat rules back to you. Definitely check out Cobett’s site for more info. I just realized he has a Vimeo channel for Creating Cooperative Kids which looks like a fabulous free resource. 

      • Amy

        April 30, 2013 at 9:19 pm

        I also noticed there are a lot of free podcasts on iTunes as well.

  • Sarah

    April 30, 2013 at 5:05 pm

    Does he say anything about how to make that work when the kids only live with you 2 days a week and their other parent is completely uncooperative and would set opposite expectations just to spite you?

    • Mir Kamin

      April 30, 2013 at 5:08 pm

      Oh, Sarah… that sounds… familiar. (*divorced parenting situation commiserative fist-bump*) The CD I listened to does not specifically address that so I can’t say. What I can tell you from my own experience is that “The rule in this house is…” and/or “While you’re here, the expectation is…” sorts of things can be understood even by very young children. Best of luck—I know that’s a tough situation.

  • Mom24_4evermom

    April 30, 2013 at 5:06 pm

    Thank you Mir. Very interesting. So far, thankfully, my control freak style of parenting has worked, (29 and 21), but I still have 2 more, 12 and 10, and you never know…. 😉 It’s always good to have a back up strategy. A less naggy mom definitely sounds like a win for everyone.

  • Bill Corbett

    April 30, 2013 at 6:13 pm

    Thank you again Mir.  If you found the CD useful, you’ll love my new DVD.  I would love to send you my new DVD as my way of saying thank you for trying my concepts on my CD.  Please send me an email to [email protected] and provide me with your mailing address.  I’ll send a DVD right out to you.  You can see it at

  • Kim

    April 30, 2013 at 7:23 pm

    Well, I guess I’m buying a new parenting book.  Because what I’m doing now sure isn’t getting anything cleaner, just making everyone miserable.

  • suburbancorrespondent

    April 30, 2013 at 7:59 pm

    I’ll tell you the truth – we tended to operate like that with teens, anyway (it’s still carrot-and-stick, really, only in fancy, no-nagging packaging); and we were still accused of being harsh and punitive and manipulative and of “springing things” on a certain someone (because, OMG, that other thing happened, like, LAST WEEK and what has that got to do with TODAY?!!!!). Good luck. I think it works if the teen is at least somewhat capable of rational thought.

    Yes, I do sound bitter. Can’t help it.

  • Heather

    April 30, 2013 at 8:56 pm

    Sounds worth a go!  I’ll file this away 😉

  • Nance

    April 30, 2013 at 8:56 pm

    I’m going to use you as my guinea pig and see how this works for you.  We’re in the “treatment mode” stage of dealing with my daughter’s mental illnesses and other struggles, and like your daughter, fear of punishment simply doesn’t work for her.  We’re working on reinforcing positive behaviors, and picking the hills we want to die on for the negative ones, but I’m intrigued by this.  I’m even going to run it by her therapist tomorrow.  

    And yes, I am clinging at straws right now.  

  • Karen

    April 30, 2013 at 9:23 pm

    My first kid is currently still 5 months from being born, but I’m bookmarking this and reading it every day until he or she becomes a teenager!

    • Mir Kamin

      April 30, 2013 at 11:24 pm

      You’re going to need it waaaaay before teenagerhood, Karen. 😉 Congrats on your impending kiddo!

  • tssturgill

    April 30, 2013 at 9:32 pm

    Mir, regarding your example of her not walking the dog after school – were you to stay silent and walk the dog yourself?  Our “dog” would be the unwashed dishes and I would be biting a GIANT hole through my tongue.

    • Mir Kamin

      April 30, 2013 at 11:23 pm

      So there’s no-commenting-ing and there’s the guiding hand—for something like dishes, I’d likely guide her to the sink. Hopefully the response would be “Oh, right! DIshes!” But part of what the presentation I listened to covers is negotiation, as well. If the response was “I can’t do this right now,” then you have to say, “Okay, when can you do it? When can I expect the dishes to be done by?” It allows the kid some latitude, encourages cooperation on both sides, etc.

      It’s interesting to note that the negotiation example he gives is about getting his daughter to fold some towels… and she keeps offering ridiculous deadlines (Easter, even though the conversation is happening in October, for example) and he counters with more reasonable ones but does move, somewhat, on the original goal. He also points out that when she finally does the towels, they’re sloppy, and he has to decide if it’s worth a confrontation. There’s a lot of things getting done around here later than I’d like and not up to the standards I’d like, but it’s all (hopefully) part of a larger picture.

  • The Other Leanne

    April 30, 2013 at 10:27 pm

    I wonder if this works with full-grown employees…

  • Kristen

    April 30, 2013 at 11:43 pm

    Thanks! Just got the book. Of course, I bought it off of Amazon. Because I have Prime. (…Because of your *other* website… : )

  • Anna Marie

    May 1, 2013 at 8:59 am

    I’m totally trying this with my almost 6 year old daughter. She’s a natural-born negotiator and it’s exhausting. Thanks for this post!

  • MR

    May 1, 2013 at 11:24 am

    My parents had a similar approach. We had certain things we were expected to do as part of our job as being part of the family. We had to clean our rooms and had to pick so many points worth of other chores (that my mom had written on note cards with the points values for each), and we got to pick whichever ones we wanted. If you did your chores, you got your “paycheck” (allowance), and if you didn’t, you didn’t. Once we were 13, they would buy us one school outfit a year, and underwear and socks, and we could do chores to earn extra money to buy more clothes. It really instilled the desire to be cooperative.
    This article has reminded me of all that. My kids are still younger (oldest is almost 5), and I realized from reading this that I haven’t been doing this and need to.

  • Elizabeth

    May 1, 2013 at 3:23 pm

    Does this work with older people?  Because I have a cranky and critical older relative living with me whom I generally cater to and who hates to hear my advice, even though I am an expert in the subject which he is asking questions of me about (health professional). 

  • april u

    May 1, 2013 at 6:45 pm

    sounds similar to love and logic, which we have just begun using with our 3 year old. so far, so good.

  • Jamie

    May 2, 2013 at 12:45 pm

    Very interesting! I’ll be looking into this, too. 9 and 11 year old boys. Oy!

  • AKD

    May 2, 2013 at 8:23 pm

    I’m thinking I might try it on a husband… I’m so sick of being a nag. I could see how this strategy might work. We’ve had similar conversations before about how if he carries more of the household load, I am more likely to have a positive reaction to the things he wants to do (like have an evening off, or for me to make dinner on his night, etc. etc.) I’ve often referred to it as “banking credit.” Definitely food for thought here.

  • […] Alpha Mom tries out a “kinder, gentler” method for getting kids’ cooperation without yelling or bribes. […]