Does Your Child Say This? “You can’t make me!”

by James Lehman, MSW
Does Your Child Say This? “You can’t make me!”

At times, children will verbally draw a line in the sand, stare you in the eye and say “You can’t make me.” When they say this, what they’re looking for is a fight, and it’s important not to give them one. By responding with “Oh yes I can,” there’s a threat implied, and it’s only going to further escalate the situation. You’re giving the child control by joining into the fight that you’ve been invited to. It’s important to remember not to engage the child on her level. Instead, respond to your child by taking your emotions out of the equation and focusing back on the matter at hand.

“You can’t make me!”

Translation: “I don’t want to do what you’re asking, and I’m looking to start a fight with you.”

Ineffective parenting response: “I can and I will if you don’t do it right now.”

Effective parenting response: “I’m not here to make you. But there will be consequences if you break the rules.”

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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."


Wow - what a timely article. Just had another terrible fight with my 15 year old because he wouldn't do something I wanted him to do. What I wanted him to do wasn't a chore/job, it was go somewhere with me. I want to do things occasionally as a family (even though we are just the two of us, it's still a family), and he won't participate. I'm not talking about going to visit boring family - I'm talking about trying to get him to enjoy a concert or tour a museum or go to a coffee house to hear music. We moved to a great new city 3 months ago and now he sits in the house listening to his music and won't go out and enjoy it. I'm worried about him and my efforts to encourage (or force) him out to connect with the city and people are very unwelcome.

Comment By : Lisa

a great response....releases the wind from the little darling's sails

Comment By : g'ma

I'd like to hear more about "Lisa" as I have a 16 soon to be 17-year old boy that is exactly the same! How are you getting him out to do stuff with just you? My son won't do anything with his father even though my husband has offered a zillion things to do.

Comment By : Phyllis

I have a 16 yo boy. I just cant get him to go to school. I fight with him every morning. If I dont drive him he has to take the bus but if he misses the bus there is no other way for him to get to school. I have to leave home at a certain time to get to work on time and he knows if he lazies about I will have to leave him. it is going to be bad for me at work and I tell him that but he does not seem to care. What do I do?

Comment By : Frogfriend

Lisa, I have the same problem with my 16 year old son. Unlike you I have almost stopped asking him to do things. I think part of it is boys need to feel separate from their mothers at this age. Like you I fear that my son is missing out on things he could enjoy. He would also learn a bit about the world around him if he would go to some of these things.

Comment By : ljgrey

I too would like to know how you get your child to come around. I have a 14 year old girl who will not get up for school. She is late every day that she does go to school. I would fight with her every morning, but it made no difference, because she just doesn't care what I have to say. I have told her that the consequences will be that she will fail her grade and stay behind while her friends move on to high school, but she doesn't believe me. I have given her a deadline as to when she needs to be ready, otherwise I will leave her behind so that I can get to work. Her attendance has been terrible, and she has failing grades. Nothing seems to be working. Once in a while she will join her sister to participate in family outings, but those occasions are rare.

Comment By : Chris

You are always there at the right time! I have a 13 years old boy and he does exactly the same thing.

Comment By : Susana

Wow, I needed to hear that one. I am most of the time engaging in a fight with my 13 year old son. His answer to my request is usually a stern "NO" then (since he is taller and much larger than I" and he bucks up his chest with air and walks towards me. Talk about wanting a fight; oh my I never realized it. How silly of me. Well I know this will work. Consequences are huge!!

Comment By : Barb P

To Lisa and the others, I have a 14 year old boy that has recently started giving us problems with getting up in the mornings for school. The consequence is that he loses his weekend activities when he doesn't cooperate with me in the mornings. This is actually really difficult for me as well because he is such a grouch when he is home bored all weekend, but it works because he knows that I will follow through and he doesn't want to give up his weekend fun.

Comment By : Gena

these are situations, but I would like to know how to handle each problem, how to respond to the young boy

Comment By : polskadwa

My son just turned 16 and has been giving us quite a problem for the past year. Three weeks ago he refused to go to school. He was not sick, there was no reason for him to stay home. I gave him one prompt that if he didn't get up & go to school I was going to report him truant to the school. When he refused to get up I called the 10th grade principal and reported him truant and asked if there was a procedure to follow for such situations. This phone conversation occured within my sons hearing. He became very angry at me, but he has not given me a problem with going to school since.

Comment By : Lise

My 14 year old boy will not raise his failing grades so the middle school has informed us that he will be attending an alternative highschool this fall until he brings his grades up. We warned him that this would happen and spelled out that it meant leaving his friends, but I guess he wants to see where this takes him. It breaks my heart because I could not convince his that this would be a mistake. I am so scared that the bar has been lowered yet again.

Comment By : Kacie

I had a problem with our son (15) always wanting to stay home 'sick'. Problem resolved by not allowing any electronic equipment (excluding TV) on the 'sick' day. We had to lock away the equipment the first few times. Now he only stays home when he is actually sick (still no electronic equipment but we don't lock it away on those days, he just isn't allowed to use them). No fight either!

Comment By : Mary

My 9.5 year old says the very same thing!"you can't make me!" and he's right, i can't make him do anything. what is an appropriate consequence for not doing home work? he doesn't care one bit about electronics & privileges being taken away from him. Nothing is too negative to make him do his studies nor is there anythig so positive that it will encourge him to get things down. now what? i'm ready to call the detention center! help!

Comment By : cindy3539

I traded time with my teenaged son. It was not really a bribe. But, Whatever amount of time he spent doing "family time", he would be given an equal amount of time to do "friend time", or "electronic time", etc. Also, for every hour he spent doing homework and/or studying, he was given equal "friend time", "electronic time", etc. It has worked for the past 2 years.

Comment By : Mom of 17 year old

"Mom of 17 year old" - thank you for the idea. My 17 yo son went camping with the rest of us over Spring Break (against his will) and we all suffered for it. I will try your exchange, I think it may just work. THANKS AGAIN - LCKKyMOM

Comment By : LCKKy MOM

Taking away privileges alone never works with our kids, so the behavior coach suggested a consequence jar (i.e. a jar full of consequences written out). It has worked! Consequences consist of doing things that are hard, like reading medical material about problems and challenges they have, chores like detailing the minivan, and activities such as cooking, planning activities, etc. In conjunction, they are confined to no tv, no talking with friends on the phone, no going to friends houses, no riding bikes, etc. We allow a few mistakes, but after we start seeing a systemic problem or the kids show disrespect, we tell them to pick a consequence from the jar. At first, our kids tested us, saying they wanted 15 more consequences. We gave it to them. One of them was invited to a friends' sleepover. We told them no because they had outstanding consequences to fulfill. Sometimes, it will be painful standing your ground as a parent, but it is important so they know you don't kid around now. It has taught our kids a valuable lesson. After 6 months of following through, our kids keep themselves relatively consequence-free and we have established a pattern of respect for the parents.

Comment By : ChallengedParent360

Wonderful! A whole article in one sentence! Do they give awards for such feats?

Comment By : better dad

I have a suggestion for cindy3539, mom of 9.5 year old...reverse your strategy. Instead of taking privileges away when he refuses to do homework, start the day at zero privileges and have him earn them by doing his homework. Anything beyond the basic necessities of life (food, sleep, medicine, etc) are privileges. This works great for my 7 year old daughter. She couldn't care less if we take things away, but if she knows she has nothing, she will strive to earn what she wants. Good luck!

Comment By : MRM

My 16 girl was always late for school, so I was late for work, and on and on. She claimed "cramps" so often, perpetual PMS, just to stay home and chat on MySpace. She is not active socially, so there are few privileges to deny. She failed all her freshman classes (had been Honor Roll student!) and now I finally enrolled her in Virtual School. FLORIDA OFFERS ONLINE CLASSES!l Altho she waits to do the work, she is doing much better grade-wise without the distraction of classroom antics. But she still pushes the envelope further and further; eg: erupting in anger when I ask her to do any chores. SHUTTING OFF her cell phone has a positive response. After that, she actually tolerates my presence.

Comment By : jeannie a.

I am wondering What is or should be the role of "Godfather"? I don't have a kid but my friend and his wife want me to be a godfather for their 11 year old son. We all live in the same house. I have been treating the kid like he's my own son. I don't really know what is the border line of being a godfather? What are the things i should be doing?

Comment By : The Godfather

For all of those who have trouble getting their kids to may want to dig a little deeper and find out why your child is willing to break the rules and/or law to stay out of school. Is it a safety issue (physical/emotional)? Is your child depressed? Feeling overwhelmed without the skills to ask for help? Have you asked the school for assistance? Many times, a school counselor or a teacher the child has a good relationship with are able to help motivate him/her. Also, some school districts have alternative programs set up for chronically truant students, or could refer you to a private program in the area.

Comment By : philaBSC

As always, this is an excellent article. I have a 12 year old daughter that is constantly defiant to her mother, as well as me. She is very intellegent, but does not abide by rules. Your Total Transformation program is excellent, but we find it hard sometimes to adhere to its teachings.

Comment By : Bob

Nothing seemed to work with my 13 year old red head until I started taking things out of her room. Anything...clocks, posters, favorite blankets, pillows...anything in her room is fair game. She threatened me with calling CPS. Having been a foster parent I could tell her with authority that the child's needs a parent must meet are to offer the basic food groups and to provide clothing for their children. Everything else is she has is given through the kindness of my heart and can be taken away if that kindness is infringed upon. Losing most of what makes her room hers has caused her to think twice about being disrespectful and disobedient. She has to earn her things back through on going obedience and respectful behavior. She forgets and has to be reminded regularly what is at stake, but this seems to be the thing that really works for her.

Comment By : carebear

I have a 15 year old daughter that has given me a many problems since she was 9.I just recently in the past year got tough.She is currently in detention for the last episode. This has been a very trying time in my life. I went through the whole blaming myself thing.You name I have been through it with her.Enough is a Enough she is no longer welcome in the home until she straightens up.It's called tough love and you better use it or these kids will continue to rule the roost.Hang in there!!! There is light at the end of the tunnel!!!!!

Comment By : Jennifer

Jeannie A. I'm thinking that you might be taking the wrong approach with your daughter. Recently coming from a honor student to a virtual student. I'm disappointed that you even allowed her to do this. Something else is going on with her and you just fed into it. School is about the socialization, education etc... You letting her stay home and further seclude herself from reality with being on myspace is unbelieveable. What are you, yourself doing to spend quality time with her and really listening to what she needs right now from you and what's going on in her life. Maybe some one on one time or vactions that are geared toward mother/daughter bonding would be good. There are specific vacations geared toward women only that build relationship communication and the outdoors that I believe could help you get your daughter back on track.

Comment By : Darla

My son is 16. For the past 2 years, we've been to hell and back with him. It started with faking illness to stay home, and ended with drugs and being kicked out of school. That turned out to be one of the best things that happened to him as I think it helped wake him up. Only now that he is back in the real world, has he told us the emotional issues he was dealing with in grade nine, how he didn't know how to make friends in a new high school, so he would hang out in the smoking area -- a fine crowd he met there. Sometimes these kids need to have a wake up call.

Comment By : Jackie

What if my child says, i don't care about the consequence or they want to know what will be the consequence... I have a huge battle at home with an 8 yr old who will not respect any time out and does not care what is the consequence but just wants to get things done his way..PLS HELP

Comment By : Lost mum

* Dear ‘Lost mum’: When kids are angry, they sometimes say they ‘don’t care’ about consequences. But don’t pay any attention to this remark. As you point out, there are times when your son asks you what the consequence will be ahead of time. If you find you’re having a ‘huge battle’ every time you ask your child to take a time out, take a closer look at what you are ‘role modeling’ in those moments. It’s important to remain calm when you are asking your child to calm down. Read James Lehman’s article on how to set up effective consequences: How to Give Kids Consequences That Work We hope this was helpful and invite you to keep in touch. We’re here to help.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Well, I read this article and comments proactively trying to get myself ready for my 4 kidlets - one entering those PMS tender years. Darla's comment really bothered me, though. Most of us are looking at challenges in the teen years and I felt for many of the parents. High school is a very tough time not only biologically for our kids but the demands socially (and not necessarily for the positive!!), push to conform, belong, etc., at times actually this forces do not allow EDUCATION to really happen. Homeschooling or alternative education forms can be appropriate and effective. 'Socialization' is not about hanging out with the mob but also about finding oneself and at times we all need those quiet moments (maybe a year out) or a different system that best works for us. My daughter was homeschooling and returned to a great school this year but expressed the desire to return to a virtual education in high school so that she avoids the bs and can do more music and travel. From both my husband's and mine experience, the modern US high school environment is not always good for every person. For us looking back we feel it was boring and a waste of time, even though, we did the AP tracks, etc. Teens from all countries find ways to rebel but maybe we should question why ours - given the freedom, good opportunities, hope to actually find work and build a good life, unlike so many others begging to come to this country - sometimes feel something that makes them 'not care' and not want to go to school and get an education. Yes, it is about behavior modification techniques but we should also think outside the box (thx mom in Florida!) to create and support different models that will help our individual children succeed instead of assuming that because they do not fit into the 'system' there is something wrong with them. Maybe they are asking us to question the system and help them map new roads. Best wishes to all of us in this adventure:)

Comment By : shrekmama

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Does Your Child Say This, power struggles, acting out, defiant behavior, The Total Transformation, James Lehman, behavioral therapists, Out of control kids, Defiant teenagers

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