Tuesday Topic: My Child Refuses to Work

Today’s Tuesday Topic is  from Nancy who asks,

My 11 year-old daughter will work well when SHE wants to, but I never know from day to day how that is going to unfold.  Everyone else in the family (the other 9 children, including her adopted brothers), knows they need to work as part of the family, and play comes later, and you can even make work fun if you just do it cheerfully. (Nutshell synopsis there).  She, on the other hand will stall, pout, grumble, and take for.ev.er to do whatever she’s asked, or do it poorly, so then I have to go through the hassle of having her re-do it, which is just as painful.

What am I missing?  Do I just absolve her of any work?  Do I follow her around correcting her ( no.  Misery.).  Is there some deep adoption trauma associated with this that I don’t know about?  She says she just doesn’t like the jobs.  If she doesn’t feel like it, she won’t do it.  How do you teach someone the world doesn’t work that way?

In her email, Nancy also explained that her daughter was adopted more than five years ago, and she added, ” life is a real struggle… lots of lying, deception, inconsistency, bullying/dominating the littler kids, and disconnect from the older kids.”

Will you take a moment to share your thoughts and strategies with Nancy? I’m sure we would all benefit from some fresh ideas on this topic!

If you have a Tuesday Topic you would like me to share, please email it to me at lisa@onethankfulmom.com

I made it home from MN and today I’m jumping into a (hopefully) very productive homeschooling morning. My visit with Hannah was wonderful, and it was very hard to say goodbye. Next up, a trip to Montana for a Family Day with Dimples.



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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.


  1. Karen NumberTwo Hannaford
    September 17, 2013

    Every time I read the comments on these posts I am so thankful for my easy life! (no adoptive kids, 2 boys of my own, one is autistic) But I am also very saddened at the pain these kids so often struggle with and the way you as their adoptive parents seem to bear the brunt of it. Looking in from the outside means that there are some things I don't understand, but it also means I can perhaps see more clearly since I have no emotional connection. I have heard so many times that as parents (especially Mums- sorry about the spelling, I'm in NZ) that you think you can 'fix/heal' your kids somehow. But what I hear about their struggles leads me to believe that the only one who can heal them is Jesus. You can show them love (and you should!) but you can't make them accept it. That is a choice only the kids themselves can make. Even Jesus does not make us accept His love, He simply gives it and lets us choose. If you follow His example, then that is all you can do. Don't beat yourself up for not managing to do something even God doesn't do!
    The verse that keeps coming to mind is "There is no fear in love. Perfect love drives out all fear 1 John 4v18. These kids live in fear of being hurt. Even though you love them, the pain they have already endured is bad enough that they put up defences to try to keep your love out. It makes me want to cry to think of what they must have endured to think that way. Jesus could heal them in the twinkling of an eye, but He will not force Himself on anyone, we must invite Him in. I'm pretty sure that rule doesn't change just because they are kids.

    1. Joe
      September 20, 2013

      Thank you for this compassionate response. I don't have adopted children but ache with the feelings of guilt and shame that come with children struggling to make it in life. It is very painful to see children choose destructive behaviors and not be able to change or fix that. I have made my share of mistakes and know that I carry responsibility for where my kids are at in life but I appreciate the reminder that only Jesus can really do the healing. My faith feels at an all time low but your post helps give me something to cling to as I once again walk thru the pain of a child walking a path that will only bring more hurt and loss into their life. Even praying feels inadequate but I know that is the only real source of strength. Thank you.

  2. Bev
    September 17, 2013

    We had 7 children, including three who were adopted after being in abusive homes. I don't know the psychology behind the behaviors, but all three of ours had all the behaviors mentioned. For years we lived by the idea that in order for them to feel part of the family, we had to require them to do family work. Your story sounds so familiar, with the slowness, the complaining, the re-dos that were painful. There were always questions: how important is consistency? what about the feelings of the other kids who are doing their share? will they ever be able to take responsibility if I don't make this important now?

    The weight of their future success is heavy. But mine are now all adults so I have the perspective of time. As I said, for years we made them complete the jobs correctly, even if it took repeated redos, or limiting their social schedules until their jobs were completed. It wasn't worth it.

    When the older two had moved on and only the younger one was left, we found new philosophies that seemed better. We did what you probably already do. We began to try to believe that our child was doing the best that they could at the time. We did not stop including him in chores, but sometimes I did the chores with him. Sometimes, if I couldn't do them with him, I'd just complete them later. It was less stressful and time consuming than always pointing out what was still undone, and so often being in a negative state in our relationship.

    The change was helpful in making our relationship more warm. There were more times of vulnerability, less anger.

    There are no magic bullets, though. As far as successful responsible adulthood, neither approach made a difference. The lying and deception and inconsistency are still part of our relationships with them. With those things too, we have decided that they are doing the best they can. They learned early in their lives that people who are supposed to love you hurt you. I don't really know how it all works out in their minds, but it seems to me that for them, telling the truth is the thing that takes a major effort. Lying is the default. It isn't because they are bad. It is because they've been wounded.

    It helps to know that. But it still hurts every time as well. I'm saying that not to depress you, but because for so long I believed that if I was a good mother I could do what it took to make them safe, to heal them.

    Right now, we have better relationships with two of them and no relationship with one of them. The two still lie to us, but they also see us as allies. They use us, but they also see us as people who have been there for them.

    So my advice to you is to do what you can to connect. Try to remind yourself that kids feel best when they are doing well, so they don't choose to do badly unless there is a reason that makes sense to them. That mercy is good, including mercy to yourself. One of the most important lessons I learned was that I can't be as loving and nurturing as I wish I were all the time. And that's all right. Because my children won't learn about sorrow or asking forgiveness or the ability to admit being wrong unless they see strong people who do it when they need to.

    I think I answered more than your question, without giving you a definitive answer to your question. God bless you.

    1. DFNY
      September 18, 2013

      I just wanted to tell you, Bev, that I loved your in-depth reply with the advantage of telling us what resulted in your case, years later. I especially liked what you said:

      "The change was helpful in making our relationship more warm. There were more times of vulnerability, less anger."

      I think that this should be the goal more often than not. I sometimes forget it when I feel frustrated with my 8 yr old son. Thank you for the reminder.

    2. Sara
      September 18, 2013

      Thank you for your "long term" perspective and your honesty. Your acceptance of what you and your kids are/were capable of is a generous thing and something that I think can help foster a loving relationship (though perhaps not a completed chore list- and that's just fine).
      It is always so helpful to hear from those who have been lovingly walking this road ahead of the rest of us.

    3. Karen
      September 18, 2013

      I want to say thanks, too, Bev. Especially for pointing out that kids feel best when they do well and don't usually do bad on purpose. I don't know why that is so easy to forget in the heat of the moment or the weariness of the every day. Thanks for sharing your perspective with the rest of us.

  3. angela
    September 17, 2013

    I have no answers. I just want to say we are rowing in the same boat. I am sorry. I know how hard it is.

  4. sleepyknitter
    September 17, 2013

    I don't know if our situation is similar, but our six-year-old (home five and half years) will not clean, not for reward, not for punishment, not for anything. When she was little bitty, she would never do again anything that we told her she could not do ("no, no, please don't stick anything in the electrical outlet"), but the one thing we ever proactively asked her to do, pick up her spilled, dried cereal, she steadfastly refused to do, regardless of the consequences. Over time we have come to see this as potentially a sensory processing issue, a fear of failure at organizing so many different items — she is quite the perfectionist. We now give her one task ("please straighten the papers on the desk" or "please pick up the doll clothes") rather than asking her to clean a whole mess that she has made — and she is a VERY messy little soul :-). I don't know how to explain it other than to say that her reluctance to clean has always struck us more as fear than as disobedience, and we have not known how to deal with it other than to give her one very simple task at a time.

  5. Linda G
    September 17, 2013

    Without knowing the child in question or the background, I will ask some questions that may be factors, and have been factors in my children and work.

    1. Does your child have any disability, like FASD, that can affect how they process information? My children who have FASD have difficulty on some days and are easily overwhelmed by a large chore with many steps. Just because a child can do a chore one day, doesn't necessarily they are capable of completing that chore on another, or can do it without help. Another thing I learned is that with FASD, sometimes a child acts like she won't do something, because she is ashamed to admit that she can't do something, especially when she remembers she could do it before. If there is any stress, like a sore throat, cramps, or there was a conflict with friends, the thought processes stop and she can't use the higher levels of the brain. When that happens it's either fight, flight, or freeze, and work is impossible.
    To help with a problem in capability, you can break the larger chore into smaller pieces, give chores that are developmentally appropriate rather than age appropriate, give directions for one step at a time, give visual clues like picture signs, and reduce the noise level and bring peace to the house so they can think.

    2. Does the child have an attachment disorder? Chores can be one more way that the child can attempt to push you and the rest of the family away. If this is the case, then working on attachment, even at this age and year of adoption, can be helpful. Also doing the chore with your child, not hovering over having the child do it while you watch or working in another room, can be a way to bring the child in your life. After ten years of our children being in our home, we are still working on attachment. Each developmental level brings another layer of attachment disorder, especially now that my children are teens.

    3. Does the child come from a culture or subculture where work is looked down upon and only the lowest classes do menial work? My children come from a gang subculture where the people live off the government and illegal activities. It is hard for them to see work as a good thing, since the birth family does everything to avoid it. In some countries and cultures, people don't clean their own homes or do their own laundry. It is only the dregs of society that do that sort of thing. If your child saw that, she may think you are putting her down and treating her like a slave when you ask her to do chores. You may want to continue to show a love of getting things done, provide rewards, and give praise when she does do what you ask.

    I think the thing I'd ask myself is what is behind the behavior? Your child is acting out and no one is happy about it, even the child misbehaving. There must be a reason. Some of those reasons can be fixed to some degree, like attachment disorder or attitudes. Some may not, like a mental illness, FASD, or developmental disability, and you need to change the expectations or provide external supports. Either way, it will take a lot of time, patience, and work to help a child to do their fair share of chores if she is resisting.

  6. Maria
    September 17, 2013

    Sounds more like neuropsychiatric traits to me – ADHD or ADD, pervasive devlopment disorder – that would need to be checked out by an experienced psychologist & psychiatrist ! (I say that both from a professional standpoint as well as my experience of my adopted kids with similar difficulties.) For the short term, I'd give her much support when doing her work. maybe lessen the load to find smaller areas where she can suceed,


  7. Sarah
    September 17, 2013

    Dear Nancy,

    Our second child, 22 and married, was sooooo bad at doing jobs, finishing chores etc… But miraculously is a total neat freak after leaving home:))) we always tried to 1)focus on the relationship with him 2) find out what motivated him 3) give lots of mercy so he didn't get discouraged 4) catch him doing it right and praise the heck out of him.

    I will say that we don't let them walk atound here pouting. Since they were little I tell them to go find their happy face. Because really in life we don't get to act how we feel most days. That said, we work hard to uncover bitterness, unforgiveness, sadness, insecurity etc. that drives wedges into all our relationships. Ask God to give you specific wisdom for this child. And be careful to keep forgiving that one yourself. When we hold bad feelings towards a difficult child we get fearful and aren't able to love well.

    Praying for grace and wisdom and perseverance for you!!!

  8. Karen
    September 17, 2013

    Doing family chores means getting your ticket punched as part of the family. She's clearly not ready to do that yet. So, yes, deep trauma at work here. It sounds like there is still a lot of attachment work needed. Also, one suggestion I've heard that works pretty well (nothing is ever a 100% sure thing) is to do chores together. So instead of "Make your bed" you say, "Come with me and let's make your bed together." Or, "Let's work together to get these dishes washed."

    1. Kelly
      September 17, 2013

      Love, love, love your viewpoint, Karen!!! Sounds like this little one needs to be pulled in tight for her whole day. Right next to you, as you go along with your routine, and get that attachment cemented.

  9. Rachel
    September 18, 2013

    Well… I could write this post as well… however do not have any brilliant suggestions to share. I have 2 daughters ages 15 and 16 and we have been a family for 6 1/2 months now (however the first 4 1/2 months were spent in country — a country where families do not do their own work — cooking, cleaning, gardening, laundry all done but employees) and have been home 2 months now.

    While in country I did not contract an employee but did not have a cleaning routine either. The girls would help a little but I did the bulk of the work. Since coming home — the first month we existed like we did in country but the 2nd month — I instituted an allowance and chore chart.

    The allowance was something I did not ever think I would do but the girls have never had money to manage and do not understand that there are limits — their concept of money is that if there is in the wallet it means we are rich and it can be spent — if there is not — it means we are poor and we go without — even basic necessities. Having an allowance is helping me teach them to save — we look at things in the store and then dream and talk about how many weeks of savings will get them that item. I am digressing — but my oldest dreams and talks big and spends immediately. My youngest talks about all the little things she wants and how she will never save and how much everything costs but never spends a penny. But that is another topic. But it links responsibilities and privileges… in my mind — the allowance is not simply for doing chores — I explain it is a privilege of showing you are part of the family… you show you are part of the family by eating dinner with us, respecting others time (being ready on time for school), being respectful to the other members, responding when spoken to, and helping keep the house clean.

    Back to chore chart — that did not go over well at all — I was told it was like being back in an institution and there was a lot of negative feelings/comments regarding chores being written down. They said that they knew what had to be done and did not want it written. We tried that for 1 month — and I went crazy — the chores did not get done and I felt like I was being controlled by them on this issue and was quite stressed. The girls would also challenge me on chores I should be doing and tried to level the playing field by accusing me of NOT completing my chores so why should they? The allowance became a source of anxiety for us all… would they get it this week? Would they get the full amount?? Etc…

    For the past 3 weeks (okay we are new at this) we have done something different and it is working. I see in my girls that they are looking for ways to control their own situation… I need to admit that in order to get to this point (age 15 & 16 without ever living in a family) they are independent in their own ways and everything right now feels beyond their control (new language, new country, new customs, a family, EVERYTHING is different). But what I have done is made cards of manageable jobs that get done (by me and the ones I want them to do) and specified the expectations.

    Ie/ before the Monday job would be to clean the living room — vacuum the floor, vacuum the couch, dust

    Now I have a card that reads "vacuum the livingroom floor and couch" another card reads "dust the livingroom"

    other examples are – unload the dishwasher, clean the bathroom, wash the kitchen floor, wipe the counter, fold 1 load of laundry, take the garbage to the road, wash 4 windows, clean the fridge, wash the stairs, vacuum the basement, cut the grass, rake leaves, water the flowers, etc…

    The girls go to the box where the cards are kept and chose a chore and complete it — my youngest completes 1 a day — my oldest will do 2 or 3 at a time and then go days without. When the chore is completed – she signs her name on the back with the date.

    My expectation is at least 5 chores a week… Some chores only need to be done once a week — some chores can be done multiple times — but it seems to be working… we are not fighting about chores — they can chose what they want to do which gives them a lot of control over their life right now and makes them happy. I had to let go about what I would do if one daughter decided that she would always chose to do the same chore — ie/ wash the windows every day — and decided it is still work — whether it is needed to be done or not… my goal is that they make an effort in the housework and that they learn how to clean — and although I will be the first to admit this has only been 3 weeks it is working VERY well for us. What I have found though is that the girls are beginning to see what work needs to be done without being told to do it– which I know is very hard to teach.

  10. Katie
    September 18, 2013

    As an adopted kid from a home of absolute chaos, with pretty severe ADHD and dyslexia I really did not comprehend cleaning and being "babied" with consequesnces or rewards was so painful to me that I would shut down.

    What worked for me was flowcharts and pictures. The decisions were made for me.
    Clean livingroom
    -is there toys or clothing on the couch- yes- put in bin
    no- are the pillows straight -no- straighten pillows
    -yes-is the blanket folded- no- fold blanket
    yes- Endtable
    etc-etc. If each of these come with pictures, then it would be very helpful. It will teach her how to make a decision.

    That part of my brain…it really just didn't work

  11. Donna Jordan
    September 18, 2013

    Wow–so many good comments. So many of us touched by this!

    I just want to add that there is no right way to do this!

    There may be no way that will work longer than a few months before you are searching for a new angle.

    My treasures have been home for 8 years and these are still issues we deal with, though it has gotten easier the longer they have been home. But we still have to adjust and change.

    I think remembering that our children's past trauma does step on their present actions helps the most. There are many good books and therapies and therapists out there to help our children work through trauma, and they should be accessed. Just because a child is not over the top with behaviour does not mean that they do not have deep wounds that need to be addressed and put to rest in their minds for them to react properly in different situations.

    Yes, our children need God, the Great Physician! And I am so thankful to have had the privilege to share the truth of their sin and the great salvation given freely to them, and I have had the joy of watching them transform in the light of that truth. But I have also watched one of mine struggle strongly with trust when his sin caught him again, then fall under the condemnation that is all to prevalent among these treasures "I am no good" "I am a throw away" "I am unredeemable" "I will never succeed" "I am not worthy" . We MUST keep speaking TRUTH into our treasures lives!!! The lies that they heard for the first part of their lives is settled deep, it must be uprooted with the TRUTH and that is a daily, moment by moment thing.

    Keep on Keeping on in the Grace and Love of Jesus,

  12. BA in Texas
    December 5, 2013

    Though not adopted, I was the oldest of a large family and the above problems sound very familiar, though I'm sure they are exacerbated by trauma. I remember three things my mom did on chores that greatly reduced and relieved the stress both on her and us. Hopefully, they may help others.

    When I was 8, my mom tired of the constant circle of attempting to assign chores, re-doing them, the whining, crying, etc… She finally realized two things: one, I had been told – but not trained in specifics; and as a perfectionist child I was so afraid of not measuring up to an unknown standard that I would rather avoid the work altogether. She made me my own picture book of chores. We spent about a week doing a couple chores a day together with her training me in each step. She took a happy smiling picture of me doing each component of a chore (ie, for the bathroom, one of me cleaning the sink, one of me cleaning the toilet, the bathtub, sweeping the floor, etc…) and then one of me smiling proudly next to my finished chore. We put the pictures on index cards with a description on the back of the require task pictured and bound them into a booklet. After that, I knew exactly what to do and could guide myself through my chores by simply flipping to the next picture. That chore book is still a very fond memory for me even as an adult with my own children.

    As I got older, with lots of younger siblings, my mom fought the battle of "fairness" in chores. This was finally solved by her delegating the chore assignments to us. She made a list of what needed to be done on a daily, weekly, monthly basis – and we sat down as siblings and divided it up ourselves. We loved this method! We knew that it was fair for the older ones to do more than the younger ones, but we also didn't let any sibling get out of what we perceived as a fair load. It meant that the sibling who would rather clean all the bathrooms in the house than fold a single load of laundry could choose that. Nobody argued with someone volunteering for bathroom duty. lol! One sibling even chose to do all the five minute or less chores (about 10 of them) each day rather than do a couple chores that he perceived as 'long.' My mom was surprised at what we came up with, but our child perceptions of what was fair and doable were different from hers. Our finalized chore assignment list was posted on the fridge. This freed my mom from both constant complaints of unfairness and the "but I didn't remember /don't think that was my chore" excuse.

    The other battle of fairness is sometimes fought over shared chores – like doing dishes. The washer complains that if the dryer slacks off there is no place to put the clean wet dishes. The dryer complains that if the washer takes forever then they are just standing there with nothing to do waiting for the next dish to dry. Mom tried to legislate that neither could leave the kitchen until all the work was done – but both parties felt that was unfair. Finally, mom told us to solve it among ourselves – but extra chores would be given to anyone who complained or whined to her about it again. So, we came up with a race that we considered fair. If the washer ran out of room to put stuff because the dryer was dawdling, then they got to leave the kitchen. The dryer had to finish whatever was left of the washing and still do all the drying and putting away. If the dryer ever got to a point where she had dried and put away all the dishes and was just 'waiting', then she could leave the kitchen and the washer had to finish everything. It was rare that this rule was actually enforced, because both washer and dryer always worked really fast after that in the hope that some of their work might be offloaded.

    Even with the above helps, we still had a couple incorrigible whiners and slackers. You know the type. At some point you realize that a highly skilled manipulator has successfully duped you into giving compassionate loving care to the 'sick' one everyday at choretime. The whiny slackers who were happily playing, but at choretime suddenly developed incapacitating headaches, tummyaches, or realized they had a miniscule cut on their finger, or elbow, or ear, etc… were given "Mama's Cure-All." It was a harmless but truly nasty mixture of things like horseradish, chopped garlic, ground cloves, liquid minerals, etc… Mom gave it out quite cheerfully and compassionately – one spoonful for each complaint at choretime. Considering what it contained, I'm sure we were actually healthier for a spoonful, but it was amazing how much better the whiny slackers suddenly felt. Of course, she did not give it to children who actually were prone to afternoon migraines or had been acting listless or feverish all day.


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