The Difference Between Won’t and Can’t

Updated: May 9

By: Dr. Kimberly Harrison

“No!” Carlos threw his pencil and stomped down the hall, refusing to return to finish his homework. First, Dad started pleading with promises of a favorite TV show if Carlos would just finish, then Mom threatened no iPad time if he didn’t start working “right now!”


The more his parents insisted, the angrier Carlos became, throwing his toys around his bedroom, shouting, and eventually crying himself to sleep. No punishment seemed to impact his desire to get away from that homework. His parents were exhausted and confused. Why was second grade homework such a problem? After all, he just had to read a few pages in a book and write 3 sentences. Other nights were the same. It didn’t matter what the subject was, Carlos refused, often holding the household hostage with his outbursts. Sometimes, one tantrum would resolve just in time for another to begin – he didn’t want to play with his brother, or go swimming, or go to his baseball game – sometimes, it seemed, he just wanted to be defiant. He’d always been a little emotional, but never like this. What were they doing wrong, his parents wondered, why couldn’t they make their child behave? It was frustrating, embarrassing, and draining. It was even starting to impact their marriage, each one blaming the other for making it worse.


Phoebe’s parents were dealing with something similar, but their daughter was in seventh grade. She took forever to do her homework, often forgot to turn things in, and wasn’t sleeping well. She was extremely irritable all the time and she didn’t even want to spend time with her friends anymore. The only thing that seemed to calm her was watching an endless string of YouTube videos. No matter what her parents said or did she yelled, cried, and then shut down.


So, what is going on? Is it bad behavior? Has Carlos learned that if he creates enough commotion, he won’t have to do it? Has Phoebe figured out life is a lot more fun with videos and no schoolwork? Perhaps. Sometimes children learn how to get out of unpleasant tasks by distracting adults with off-putting behavior. If that’s the case, then some general behaviorism usually works to correct things.


Start with positive reinforcers. A reinforcer is something that is added to improve a wanted behavior and is given immediately after the person does something desired. Examples of positive reinforcers include praise, a tasty treat, a tic mark on a score sheet, and more. Start small with praise when a first step is accomplished. In the case of Carlos, if it’s a behavioral issue where he “won’t do homework” then his parents should give him praise for each step – taking out his book, reading a page, writing a sentence, etc., then follow up when homework is done with an extra few minutes of screen time or something he loves to do. After a few days, most likely he’ll need less and less support and the behavior will change.


Same with Phoebe, although sometimes behavioral issues require consequences, especially for preteens and teens. A consequence involves adding or taking away something to decrease an unwanted behavior. But parents beware! Most people usually respond much better to reinforcers than consequences. Their parents already know that punishment doesn’t work for Carlos or Phoebe.


What else could it be? More often than just bad behavior, I find there is an underlying academic or emotional issue. Ask yourself: “When did this behavior get worse?” “What seems to be the primary trigger?” “What’s going on in the environment when it happens?” “Does it happen both at home and school?” "Are teachers concerned that performance is declining? Your child may have been extra emotional since the beginning, but did this type of behavior always happen? If so, look at neurobiological issues such as ADHD. You might want to consult with your pediatrician or a therapist to determine the root issue and plan interventions. Sometimes ADHD shows up early on, and sometimes not until later, such as Middle School when schoolwork becomes more complex. If the intensity of behavior is new, then look at what else is going on.


Perhaps Carlos is having difficulty reading or with holding a pencil. An evaluation of reading and writing issues might be in order. Maybe Phoebe is being teased or bullied or can’t concentrate in class. Or, perhaps anxiety has increased to a level where it has become a disorder triggered by the stress of schoolwork, or OCD is emerging, or the child is depressed. These neurobiological, emotional, and learning issues are “cant’s” which are triggering the meltdowns. If you’ve used all the tools in your parenting toolkit and are still baffled, then it’s time to create a team to investigate possible reasons for “cant’s.” Talk with your child’s teacher and school counselor. Consult with a therapist or consider a psychoeducational evaluation.


The most important things parents can do include: 1) Refuse to ignore what’s going on 2) Stop blaming yourselves, and 3) Create a team. The longer a child is in distress and the family is suffering, the worse it usually gets. Create a team, develop a plan, and know you are not alone. Finally, keep your eye on the prize. On those tough days, think about your child as a thriving student, a happier human, and maybe even visualize them as a successful adult. Remind yourself that this, too, shall pass.

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