A mother asks: My fourteen year old son is refusing to do chores. For 14 years, there were no problems. Now, I have a different child under my roof! We've always had a great, mutually respectful relationship. Getting work and chores done at the moment is ridiculous! Every method under the sun has been tried - except I don't believe in physical or emotional consequences, just loss of privileges.
Genevieve's response: Hi there, this sounds very stressful and it's all too easy for this kind of issue to lead to so much tension on a daily basis. Instead of talking about the actual jobs, when resistances build up, the place that most needs attention and is often missed is the child's related feelings and the quality of connection between the parent and child.
I'm curious about why he is resisting. He may not know himself, but there will be reasons and he needs your help to gain more clarity himself about why he's resisting and what would help him feel more motivated and empowered.
Perhaps you could help him explore what he feels when you ask him to contribute. The time to have this kind of conversation is not in the midst of a power struggle about the chores, but at a relaxed moment when the connection is good between you and when you can feel confident that he has the time and head space to explore his thoughts and feelings on the subject. Tell him you'd like to check in with him about chores and ask him if he is willing to have that conversation with you. Here are some ideas of thoughts you might like to share with him, or thoughts that may help you think about what might work best with your kid:
"I'm wondering about how you feel when I ask you to help out? You don't look so happy about it, are you finding things hard?"
"Hey I just want you to know that I've been noticing and really caring that you seem to have a lot of frustration relating to chores lately."
"I'm even more interested in your feelings and in restoring the harmony than the jobs themselves."
"I'm sure we can work this out."
"I really want to make things work better for both of us and really need your help. I'm wondering what might make it easier for you to fit your wants and needs into any one morning or evening"
Perhaps read my active listening article for some tips on having conversations that are more likely to open him up than shut him down, as well as this one to ensure that the general communication from you to him is more empowering than disempowering.
Children respond much better to positive expectations than criticisms or guilt tripping. When trust and open respectful communication are maintained, the child generally finds it a lot easier to contribute and the parent finds it easier to remain calm, cool and collected in the discussions and negotiations relating to chores.
Respectful requests are motivating, helpful and supportive to kids. Demands and guilt laden pleading cause kids to feel stressed, pressurized and rebellious. Children and adults of all ages respond more positively to politely asked requests rather than demands.
Requests rather than demands. Keep your requests relevant to the present and avoid burdening them with reminders of how frustrated you are at all that they haven't done in the past. "Can I encourage you to do a job on your room today? Does that sound like a good idea? When might be a good time to do that? Would you like my help in getting started?" are suggestions that will most likely be received as an expression of care and support. By guiding in this way, you're helping your child focus their thinking without criticizing them. Requests differ from demands in that they're never reinforced or followed up with punishments, threats or enforced consequences.
As opposed to demands or guilt tripping which are discouraging; "your room needs to be tidied, I want you to stop what you're doing and go clean it immediately and I'm not interested in excuses!" Or "look at the state of your room, how can you go to sleep in such a messy room? I've been telling you to clean your room for days now, what's it going to take for you to care about keeping a tidy space?" This communication is unlikely to be received as loving or supportive. It's likely to feel like the parent is offloading their frustrations, being insensitive to their child's feelings and may well be received as a message that the parent thinks their child is a messy lazy irresponsible person. If the child feels such feelings, it's rarely motivating, it's very discouraging and when it mounts up, it can feel debilitating and cause kids to give up on even trying to be a tidy, responsible, organized person.
What's your child really communicating through his resistance? In my work with families, the issue of chores comes up a lot and when we pull apart a child's resistance to jobs, it often uncovers a lot of hurt and unresolved feelings in the parent child relationship that tends to surface around jobs (the same is true for couples!). Lack of contribution is often symptomatic of a child feeling unappreciated or having low self-esteem relating to too much criticism. I hear that in your case you've generally had a very open and mutually respectful relationship, yet even in the best of relationships misunderstandings and upsets happen and can easily build creating underlying frustrations.
What feelings are making it so difficult for him to do chores? Does he perhaps feel pressurized, judged, rebellious, pulled in different directions, for instance does he sometimes feel caught in the middle between conflicts between his mother and father? Maybe the pressure of these requests brings forward for him his many personal pressures and worries relating to his school and social life that he maybe feels arent' truly understood at hom? Does he have some resentments from past conflicts that need to be resolved? Is he free to show you his more "negative" feelings towards you, if not maybe he needs to (with limits perhaps "I want to hear about what I do that upsets you, can you please use respectful language").
How does he feel about himself in relation to doing chores? I remember working with a family and one issue was that their 14 y.o. girl who refused to help around the house. When I guided her to explore how she felt in her body when her parents talked to her about housework, huge grief came up for her related to one time her mother called her a "lazy slob" when she was about 11. After sharing the story and some big cries, she spoke to her mother about it, cleared the air, gained an apology and reassurance from her mum and suddenly had a lot more energy for housework. I share this story as an example of how kids can become weighed down by our judgements and giving them the chance to share is one way of keeping the lines of communication more open.
How did you feel about chores when you were a child? Most parents themselves received a lot of pressure, criticism and not enough empathy and appreciation relating to chores when they were young and it's very easy for a parent to transfer some of these unresolved frustrations onto their child. For this reason, I always encourage parents to explore the feelings that come up for them when their child isn't as cooperative as they'd like. And explore if some of these feelings relate back to childhood.
The parent's reactions around chores are often very intense and out of proportion to the challenge at hand and if unchecked can cause a lot of heavy tensions to develop in the family relating to chores. It can be particularly interesting to reflect on what was going on for you when you were a similar age. But parents can break the cycle by identifying their triggers, expecting those triggers, doing some conscious self-talk that helps to put the challenges back in perspective. This for me personally has always been a challenging area and it's taken a lot of work to overall not pass on my frustrations and huge sense of injustice around chores onto my kids.
My biggest aim is that they feel supported in their journey of becoming confident and competent in completing tasks and that they don't develop a negative self-image relating to chores and tasks. They believe in themselves because I've believed in them.
Guide him diplomatically to understand your perspective as well as his own. It is true that even the most balanced teenager can have a tendency to think in terms of "me first" rather than group thinking. It really does take years to develop the ability to consider the wants and needs of the whole family in conjunction with their own wants and needs, many adults still struggle to do so. And it's big work as parents to constantly and respectfully help our teen expand their thinking to remember and include the collective wants and needs of the family. But this is what it takes and it does take the patience of a saint to remain respectful and refrain from demands, criticism and sarcasm. But this is what it takes and it helps to remember that our kids are unlikely to behave better than we can! So our patience is well spent. The teenager's urge for autonomy is a huge driving force, they're slowly preparing to go out in the world without us and most teenagers can't help but resist or rebel against demands to some extent but do benefit greatly from their parents respectful and diplomatic reminders of why it's important and necessary that the family works as a team.
I try to keep my demands on my 16y.o. son reasonable and remain flexible. Yet although his life is incredibly full and pressured (with just about all teenagers this is true), I do expect him to contribute with normal household chores on a daily basis. This is not just to share the load, which is very important, but also to help him increase his confidence and competence. Parents do their teenager a huge disservice if they do everything for their son or daughter resulting in them leaving home with very little domestic skills. If I ask my son to help me cook the dinner rather than simply telling him what to do in a demanding fashion, I tend to ask " are you willing to ... " or "would you be happy to .. " For instance; "would you be willing to help me cook the dinner?" giving him the choice and if he says he'd rather not, I ask him to share his thoughts, I share mine, we chat calmly, we negotiate. I might say; "ok I hear you want to type up your assignment, will you do the tidy up after dinner so?" or "ok I hear that you have a lot to do and I also feel strongly about getting some help because I've been working all day, what do you suggest?"
When my child reacts, I hear an expression of some sore feelings. If my son reacts to my requests (shown through his tone of voice), I try not to take it personally and try to remember that it's an expression of his frustration rather than any negativity intentionally directed at me. Through a snappy tone, a teenagers (or children of any age) are invariably showing their parent that they're hurt/frustrated/stressed or overwhelmed, which may or may not relate directly to the present interaction, it may be indicative of them having had a particularly stressful day. When this happens, I might check my tone, am I pouring my stress out onto the kids, I might back off for a few minutes to let him calm down and return to the conversation a while later. I might express concern for his feelings; "did you have a problem with how I asked?", "you seem really stressed, has it been a really big day for you already?", or "what do you need?" Because he can trust that I will overall remain fair (I definitely have my out of balance moments which he will react to very quickly), but he can be confident that I will always return to being fair, reasonable and empathic to sort through any misunderstandings, so his frustrations don't escalate too quickly.
This style of communication makes it easier for parents and kids and tends to result in a much better flow of communication and cooperation and certainly helps to avoid the intense emotional reactions that can easily happen with teenagers.
I haven't ever used punishments or enforced consequences in my 18 years of parenting. I've never used tactics like a withdrawal of privileges or other punishments. My children have never been put in time out or grounded. But I can imagine that if I did I'd lose a lot of my son's respect and give the green light for him to use similar kinds of threats, tactics and manipulation with his sister and us parents. But because I've always aimed to be caring, considerate, fair, because he can trust that his perspective will always be heard, then I find that he genuinely wants to work well with myself and the family in general.
Respect begets respect. Because of the style of communication I've always used, my son communicates with me in similar ways. He listens respectfully, he uses the word "acknowledge" a lot, e.g. "mum I acknowledge that you have a lot to do and what you're asking me is really reasonable and I want you to know that I really appreciate all you've done today for the family." He is very generous in his time and patience in talking problems through, generous in giving appreciation and overall generous in helping to keep things working smoothly in the family.
Do I need to still do a lot of asking, reminding, listening to suggested negotiations? Yes sure, I do at times and I'm okay with that. And a lot of discussions and negotiations happen with my husband as well, that's just part of daily life. Regardless of the style of parenting a parent chores, kids are developing good habits and they need a lot of help, support and reminders. Sometimes I get very frustrated and we need to sit down and have a chat about jobs, which tends to help my kid re-focus. Yet, it's so important that their dignity is maintained through it all. It's not that we don't have our challenges and moments, every family does, but the difference is that we have the communication skills to navigate our way through with everyone's dignity still in tact and each person (myself included) can trust that they're heard, understood and respected.