Managing Resistance in Children and in Adult Relationships

by / Saturday, 10 November 2018 / Published in Marriage and Family


Managing Resistance in Children and in Adult Relationships

By Jeff Dwarshuis LMSW ACSW 


Resistance is an important topic in parenting and relationships since it distances a person from using directives for their own benefit. Milton Erickson MD, credited as the creator of modern hypnotherapy and family therapy, developed theories about human resistance and established techniques to motivate individuals to do things they might otherwise oppose. Erickson believed that people are oppositional by nature and that they will resist directives even if these directives are helpful for them. He argued that people are not motivated to cooperate but rather are motivated by the power of choice, self determination and enlightenment. To decrease the likelihood of resistance the task for a parent or adult is to frame a request in such a way that it allows the other to have choice, a resolving of an internal conflict, or joy in learning. Here are some examples. 


Children and young people often will oppose a parent’s suggestions to follow through on requested tasks and it can be difficult to motivate kids through direct requests. Motivation and cooperation can be generated if the parent provides for the child a set of alternatives. By doing this, the parent is allowing for choice and opposition is taken out of the equation since the parent is framing the options. Motivation can be created in the child by suggesting something that they will oppose while also providing a more pleasant option.

A parent can think of what they want the child to do and then give a suggestion of something that is worse. A parent might say “Do you want to clean the shower now or in 15 minutes?”
After the child makes their decision the parent can continue to use this method to suggest more desired behaviors.
“When you clean the shower would you rather wash the shower curtain or clean the drain?”


If a child challenges a parent’s direction then the parent can accept the child’s behavior, take interest in their reasons to be resistant and then treat their decision to do something else as a need. The parental acceptance and interest will turn their opposition into cooperation. Since the parent has reframed the child’s behavior as cooperative, it puts the parent in a better position to make suggestions and to be heard.

A son says,’ Mom I am going out tonight and I don’t care what you say” The mother responds by saying, “I understand that you are going out tonight and that it is important to you. Before you leave please finish your work and be home by 10:30.”

This technique can also be used to “encourage” negative behavior that is already being done. For example, a parent might say “I see that you need to spend a lot of time with your friends staying out late. While you are out please help me by picking up some groceries and talk to me about other things I need done when you get home.” 


One of the best times to give a suggestion is after you have told a story. Applying this idea to parenting can be very helpful in facilitating change.

First, the parent thinks of a behavior they want changed (I want Joe to go to school) Second, the parent decides what personal characteristic the child needs to improve to make this happen (Ambition). Third, the parent thinks of a story in the past when the child showed that personal characteristic. Forth, the parent thinks of a similar but unrelated story to use as an introduction that highlights or supports the main point.

For example the parent might say,”Joe, I remember a time when your cousin was so interested in pleasing his boss. He wanted to do well at his job and get a promotion. He got to work early every day and even though he was new at the job he learned all he could until he felt comfortable. I remember you did that when you learned to swim. You were scared but you got ready on time. I brought you there and you jumped right in the pool.”

The best time to tell the story is close to the time when the parent and child are talking about the problem such as going to school. Allow enough time to make it appear like a different topic but close enough that the child can make the association, perhaps 10-20 seconds. Following this, if necessary, ask the child to think about how they can apply this to the presenting concern. 


People associate thoughts, feelings and situations with specific physical locations. A parent can use this idea to encourage a child to continue in a positive direction, think more creatively and be more empathic.

For example, if a child is beginning to listen and share better in the home the next discussion should be in the same location in the home. However, naturally and without explanation, the parent takes the child’s past sitting position and the child sits in the parent’s spot. The parent listens to the child about what is happening with him or her and then works in questions to make sure they understand how the parent felt about the topic the last time. The parent might say “Do you remember how it made me feel when we discussed this last time?” This change in the child’s sitting position will encourage him or her to use more levels of thinking to be empathic with the parent.

Another example is this. Without explanation, change the sitting positions at a time the family is all together such as a family meal. As everyone is settled and going about their business, begin to talk about positive changes of one or all of the kids. Talk about the old and then the new and have the children discuss the joys of positive change. Through an associated shift in location, the parent will be teaching the child’s unconscious thinking that the old is very old and the new is here, now, different and solid.  


Children do not improve behavior quickly. Instead of getting naturally frustrated the parent can watch for small changes in the child and build on them. People tend to behave in patterned ways and if a child is showing tendencies towards positive change the parent can take advantage of this patterned behavioral change and build on it.

For example, if a parent notices the child is doing a better job cooperating at home than he or she is cooperating in the classroom the parent might say “You are doing such a great job listening to me and cooperating with my ideas. How can you do this with your teacher?” The parent might also say, “I am so happy about how you are being a leader with your friends. What is that about?” Then have him or her think about how he or she can apply this growth to the next tasks like getting along with teachers. The parent might also say ”I have noticed how you have made such mature decisions about managing your money and I am really curious to know how you are going to apply this maturity to dealing with finding a job.” 

The examples below are inspired by Jay Haley’s book “Uncommon Therapy: The Psychiatric Techniques of Milton H. Erickson”. Although these examples illustrated parenting challenges these ideas can also be used in any relationship.



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