Defiant kids are often upset, frustrated, looking to externalize blame and operating under the assumption that they are equal in authority and wisdom to grown-ups. This results in being upset in their interaction with their peers and with anybody in authority like the poor long suffering mother/father. When grown-ups resort to spanking, oppositional kids are often able to manipulate the situation and turn the focus on the moms and dads' behavior. Oppositional kids are commonly also labeled as explosive as strong-willed.
Most moms and dads of oppositional kids are afraid to set definite and definitive limits, and chaos results. Underlying influences driving oppositional behavior may be feelings of inadequacy due to concerns such as: peer rejection, conflict with moms and dads, past traumas, body image concerns and sibling conflicts. The perception is that oppositional behavior is cool. All kids display oppositional behavior from time to time, but it's possible that your youngster has a condition called Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD).
Moms and dads can inadvertently contribute to a youngster's oppositional behavior and negativity by being too intrusive and by constantly imposing their own agenda. With a baby, for example, moms and dads may over-stimulate him by talking too loudly, tickling too many times, and bouncing him around too much. In attempting to cope with all that stimulation, the baby protests with fussing or crying.
Family members may have a hard time understanding each other and a youngster with any level of oppositional behavior can create big problems for himself, his family, and others around him. However, openly uncooperative and hostile behavior becomes a serious concern when it is so frequent and consistent that it stands out when compared with other kids of the same age and developmental level and when it affects the youngster's social, family, and academic life. It may be helpful for family psychotherapy to improve communication, cognitive-behavioral therapy to assist problem solving and decrease negativity, and social skills training to increase flexibility and improve frustration tolerance with peers.
With a toddler, a mother/father who doesn't read the youngster's cues and who constantly insists that the youngster do things the parent's way can contribute to an oppositional youngster's rigidity. For example, an eighteen-month-old is playing with a jack-in-the-box and is focused on figuring out how to open the latch to get Jack to pop out of the box, when he is suddenly interrupted by his father. Dad, thinking the youngster can't do it, tries to move his child’s hand forward on the latch. The youngster defiantly shoves dad's hands away. Hurt, the father inadvertently intrudes on his son by putting an alphabet book on top of the jack-in-the-box, muttering, "Let's do something else." The toddler, trapped with both hands under the jack-in-the-box and the book, tumbles everything over and begins a tantrum, banging his head on the floor. His world has been invaded by his father. A power struggle develops, as the toddler digs in his heels even further the more his father takes over.
With a school-age youngster, moms and dads may unknowingly intrude and overload him by the way they boss him around - even when doing something potentially enjoyable together. An eager father may try to coach his daughter in soccer. Rather than letting her experiment with different ways to kick the soccer ball and perhaps setting up ingenious games, the father insists on instructing, ordering, and demanding too much. He gets impatient and upset when the youngster doesn't want to do it daddy's way. The whole enterprise disintegrates into a struggle between an irritable dad and an ever more oppositional youngster.
Moms and dads sometimes contribute to an oppositional youngster's rebellion by getting the youngster involved in too many activities. Actually, the number of activities is less important than the way in which moms and dads get involved. If the activities are fun and spontaneous, and the youngster is learning through discovery, moms and dads find that their youngster has lots of energy. On the other hand, if the youngster is feeling bossed around and controlled, it can dampen even the most energetic youngster's enthusiasm. (If you have had a controlling, intrusive boss at work, then you know how such an attitude can rob you of your motivation and desire to participate and excel.)
In general, moms and dads who are very rules-oriented or rigid are more apt to set up monumental power struggles with the oppositional youngster. When they also often take the youngster's behavior personally, seeing his negativity as aimed directly at them instead of as an attempt to organize his world, the situation is compounded. "He's just doing that to make me upset," such moms and dads tell me. There is nothing wrong with having rules and standards of conduct for your youngster, of course, but too many arbitrary rules and regulations can drive an oppositional youngster into doing precisely the opposite of what you are demanding of him.
These struggles, I have found, are often played out around certain recurrent issues. The mother/father insists that homework be done at a certain time or in certain ways. "You have to do your homework before dinner, in your room, at your desk with the radio off and the door closed!" Such rigid rules almost inevitably set up a nightly struggle that exhausts everyone. Another incendiary issue is clothes. The youngster may want to wear an old cotton shirt and comfortable, worn jeans to school, while the parent insists on a newer, stiffer shirt and pants. "You're not going to leave my house looking like that," moms and dads will say. The youngster's response, of course, is "I won't wear that junky stuff you want me to wear!" And another battle is under way.
Even more important for the youngster's response than moms and dads wanting their way is the style by which they try to get their way. When it comes to homework, cleaning up toys or respecting other people, moms and dads can persuade, negotiate, and set limits in a calm, empathetic, and supportive way. In contrast, an "in your face," domineering attitude is sure to set up or intensify the youngster's oppositional behavior.
When these struggles become entrenched and moms and dads come to me for help, I see several different types of responses. I see moms and dads (often, but not always, a mother) who feel defeated, frustrated, upset, and depressed by the running battles. They feel guilty and are embarrassed by their youngster's behavior - what they see as his horrible manners, his rudeness, and his sloppiness. Feeling helpless and upset, they rage at the youngster, throwing temper tantrums themselves. Another reaction I see from moms and dads (often fathers) is a punitive, "You-won't-get-away-with-this" stance. This father is a law-and-order kind of guy who expects to be obeyed. He may punish the youngster frequently, often physically, hoping to force or scare him into better behavior.
"If you don't sit straight at this table, you're going to your room for an hour," he may roar at the dinner table each night at his slumping youngster, who merely stares back in oppositional silence. "All right, that's it! Go to your room, and I don't want to see your face until seven o'clock!" As this scene is repeated over and over again about major and minor issues, a fierce duel between parent and youngster develops. The mother/father tries to intimidate or scare the youngster into backing down. While this approach may frighten some kids into obedience (although the parent will have sacrificed the youngster's goodwill and respect in the process), the oppositional youngster only digs in deeper. Open negativism turns into stony passive resistance. His grades suffer. He may get headaches and stomachaches. He may use more primitive mechanisms to battle back.
At the extreme, he might even begin wetting or defecating in bed. But often he will still refuse to give in. As the battles between mother/father and youngster rage on, the whole family begins to suffer. By the time such a parent reaches my office, he is often so enraged that he is willing to sacrifice anything not to lose face. Mortified at the prospect of appearing weak and impotent, he forgets that his adversary is just a youngster. "I don't care what happens," I hear from such moms and dads frequently, "he will not be a spoiled brat!"
There is yet another worrisome parental pattern that I sometimes see among moms and dads of oppositional kids. They become so drained of energy in the power struggles, and so upset at their youngster that, without meaning to, they inadvertently become less nurturing and empathetic. There is less love and understanding in the family as a whole, and sometimes between the moms and dads as well. Moms and dads tell me, "I love Joey deeply. Because I love him so much, I get frustrated and withdraw like that." Unfortunately, kids pick up on this response. One eight-year-old youngster told me, "I know my parents love me, but they hate everything I do." As the special nurturing care in the family erodes, not infrequently kids will tell me, "I wish I were never born" or "Sometimes I think it's better not to be alive." Or the youngster may simply wall himself off more and more in an oppositional corner, refusing to be a part of the family.
A mother/father's lack of nurturing, added to over-intrusiveness, is a double whammy that very few kids, especially those with an oppositional nature, can deal with. Most often this double whammy intensifies the youngster's difficulties.
How Can Moms and Dads Help the Oppositional Youngster?
The most important way to help your oppositional youngster is to become aware of his underlying insecurities and vulnerabilities and be as soothing as possible. Underneath the youngster's oppositional behavior is his inability to let you know directly how much he needs you and how much he depends on you for comfort and security. The only response he knows is to act defiantly (hardly a way to win friends!). Therefore, you want to first gain your youngster's trust and confidence and somehow slip under his oppositional behavior so that you can offer him what he needs.
Organize your youngster’s daily activities so that they occur in the same order each day as much as possible—
This technique for oppositional kids is ultimately the most important. Developing a routine helps a youngster to know what to expect and increases the chances that he or she will comply with things such as chores, homework, and hygiene requests. When undesirable activities occur in the same order at optimal times during the day, they become habits that are not questioned, but done without thought.
Chances are that you have developed some type of routine for yourself in terms of showering, cleaning your house, or doing other types of work. You have an idea in your mind when you will do these things on a regular basis and this helps you to know what to expect. In fact, you have probably already been using most of these compliance techniques for yourself without realizing it.
For kids, without setting these expectations on a daily basis by making them part of a regular routine, they can become very upset. Just like grown-ups, kids think about what they plan to do that day and expect to be able to do what they want. So, when you come along and ask them to do something they weren’t already planning to do that day, this can result in automatic refusals and other undesirable behavior. However, by using this compliance technique with oppositional kids, these activities are done almost every day in the same general order, and the youngster expects to already do them.
Create a written or picture schedule—
If for some reason it is absolutely impossible to do a regular routine in pretty much the same order every day, put together a written (if your youngster is able to read) or picture schedule for your youngster to view each day.
While this compliance technique for oppositional kids requires more effort on your part initially, if it would make a difference in your everyday battles, wouldn't it be worth it (one or two hours of work in exchange for days and months of peace)? You can put together the schedule each day as needed by arranging the laminated pictures on a Velcro strip, writing on a dry erase schedule board, or arranging pictures or written words on a computer to be printed off.
Go over the schedule at night before bed explaining what will happen the next day, again in the morning, and then continue to cross or check off each item as it is completed as you are able. Be sure to include lots of fun things to do as well.
Organize fun activities to occur after frequently refused activities—
This technique also works as a positive reinforcer when a youngster complies with your requests. By arranging your day so that things often refused occur right before highly preferred activities, you are able to motivate your youngster’s behavior of doing the undesirable activity.
This is not to be presented in a way that the preferred activity is only allowed if your youngster does the non-preferred activity. However, you can word your request in a way so that your youngster assumes that you have to do the non-preferred activity before moving on to the next preferred activity.
For example, you do not want to say something such as, “If you clean your room we can play a game.” Instead word your request like this, “As soon as you are done cleaning your room we will be able to play that really fun game you wanted to play.”
Praise, Praise, Praise—
This is probably a common term you are used to hearing by now. If you praise your youngster’s behavior, he or she will be more likely to do that behavior. So, it is essential to use praise when working with oppositional kids. It also provides your youngster with positive attention. However, it is important to know how to praise in a way that encourages future automatic reinforcement for your youngster when doing a similar behavior.
Saying things, such as good job after a gaining compliance, work well when dealing with oppositional kids, but it’s important to use descriptive praise (state the exact behavior you are praising) and correlate it to why that behavior was so important.
For example, if your youngster helped you pick up his or her toys you may say something like this, “Awesome job cleaning up your toys. I’m so proud of you for helping around the house. By cleaning up your toys, we don’t have to worry about someone tripping and falling or getting hurt. That is really responsible of you to clean your toys up to help keep everyone safe. You should be really proud of yourself.”
If your youngster brushed his or her teeth, you may say something like this, “Way to go brushing your teeth! I’m so proud of you for making sure your teeth are clean, so that you don’t get any cavities (or Ouchy) in your mouth. You should be proud of yourself for taking responsibility and brushing your teeth!”
Be sure to focus on telling your youngster to be proud of his own behavior and the effort involved more than the product. This helps to not only encourage the behavior in the future, but for your youngster to understand why you are always making requests to do that behavior.
Sometimes things can become too focused on compliance without emphasizing why the actual behavior is important to the youngster as a way to gain natural compliance because your youngster begins to understand the importance and feels more responsible and proud of his or her behavior, both natural reinforcers.
Give a 5-10 minute warning—
This compliance technique for oppositional kids is one that also works as a transition technique. If you let your youngster know that in 5-10 minutes you want a certain request completed, this allows your youngster time to finish whatever he or she is currently doing and allows your youngster to process the request.
Follow through on requests—
One of the more important compliance techniques that should be in place with the others mentioned is to make sure when a request is made that you follow through with your youngster. If you are always making requests that your youngster doesn’t complete, then your youngster learns that your request must not be important or that it is not necessary to do what you ask.
This is especially important to start this example when your youngster is young, as it is much easier to ensure compliance from a younger youngster than it is from an older youngster. This may include facilitating the request or hand over hand prompting.
For example, you may facilitate the request for oppositional kids to pick up toys by handing your youngster the toys and telling them where they need to go. Hand over hand prompting would include actually taking your youngster’s hand, helping them to pick up the object and put it where it belongs while giving lots of praise. Hand over hand prompting would not be something you would typically use with an older youngster, but may be possible.
Make the activity fun—
This compliance technique for oppositional kids may involve some thought on your part, but if you can do this, then you will also achieve natural reinforcement for the behavior. Making a game out of the request or singing songs can make a less desirable request turn into lots of fun.
Singing the clean up song from Barney or racing to see who can clean up the most items turns a tedious request into a preferred activity. You may also make up a tooth brushing song, use bubbles in the bath or use bath crayons, or have special designated snacks only allowed during homework time.
Our tooth brushing song is to the tune of London bridges falling down and goes like this, “Brush your teeth until their clean, until their clean, until their clean. Brush your teeth until their clean, until their clean.”
It's amazing the difference it makes when you put the outlined compliance techniques in place for oppositional kids. When I make a conscious effort to apply the information above, and it does take a conscious effort for most of the techniques, my son almost becomes a different youngster.
His refusals of "no, no, no!" …turn into "Okay!" and him running off to complete the request. I know it may take work at first, but the reward is far more valuable than the time spent.
Phrase requests differently towards an oppositional youngster to achieve better compliance—
State the request as if you are already assuming your youngster will complete it and if possible provide a choice that he can only make if he completes the request.
- When you put away your clothes, did you want to hang them all up in your closet or put them in the drawers?
- When you brush your teeth, did you want to use the electric tooth brush or a regular tooth brush?
- After you take your shower, did you want to wear your black or blue shirt?
Instead of asking or telling him to do certain things, try making an obvious statement that leads to the desired behavior.
- If you want your youngster to wipe his or her face at dinner, instead of telling him or her to use his napkin, say “You have some food on your face.”
- If you want him to pick up his clothes, say “It looks like you have some dirty clothes on the floor that could go in the hamper.”
What can you do when working with very oppositional kids?
Try asking your youngster to do three simple requests first. Request can be things like asking what time it is, what day it is, to hand you an object he is sitting near, and to tell you something fun he did that day, etc.
Then make your fourth request the more complicated one you were originally hoping to get your youngster to do. People are more likely to comply with a more difficult request after already completing three simple requests first. (You can try this compliance technique on your husband/wife too! It works!)
Break down tasks so that they are easier to understand—
When working with oppositional kids, instead of just asking your youngster to do something, such as clean his or her room, give 3-4 specific behaviors that would result in a cleaner room (e.g., putting away clothes in the hamper, making the bed, and putting papers in the trash).
Arrange the environment for oppositional kids so that it is easier to comply with requests—
This compliance technique for oppositional kids encourages your youngster to do what is asked because the response effort is much less than usual. Such as, bundling an entire outfit with underwear, socks and everything, so that it is very easy for your youngster to go to the closet and pick out what he or she should wear that day.
Make sure you youngster has a trashcan and hamper in his or her bedroom where it can be easily used. Try using other organization products as well.
Establishing Trust and Security—
Establishing trust and security is not easy, of course. For example, when you ask your eight-year-old how school went and he replies, "Don't ask all the time! Why do you care?" it's hard to see his underlying vulnerabilities. It is easier to be soothing with a highly sensitive youngster who is clingy and frightened than with an oppositional youngster. The oppositional youngster, with his constant need to be the boss and his ongoing power struggles with you, makes life more difficult. Yet, it is crucial to remember that this youngster is just as prone to being overwhelmed and overloaded as the highly sensitive youngster. The oppositional youngster uses bossiness and oppositional behavior in an attempt to feel secure. To protect himself, he shuts out part of the world - including his moms and dads at times. Your goal is to provide tender, loving care in spite of his negativity and oppositional behavior.
At first such a youngster may not trust you completely. He is not sure whether your attempts to soothe will be comforting or upsetting. He is so accustomed to taking charge, and so fearful of intrusions, that he feels he can trust only himself. You have to convince him that you can be comforting. Review in your mind the kinds of experiences that tend to be soothing for him. Which kinds of sounds help him relax and which are upsetting? Does he like light or firm touch? Does he prefer soft music boxes or rhythmic beats? Is he sensitive on certain parts of his body - his feet, perhaps, or his head, or his mouth? If he is a baby, what kinds of rocking motions does he like? Fast? Slow? In an older youngster, does he like to run fast or just putter along? Does he like you to be laid-back with him or focused on him and very enthusiastic? Over time, by watching and playing with your youngster, you can build a profile of his likes and dislikes. Then you can use that profile to adapt your approach in trying to calm and comfort him.
Start slowly and gradually. With a sixteen-month-old, for example, who pushes your hand away or turns his back when you try to play with him, sit just outside his "boundary," so you don't intrude. Find some way to relate to him - working down the ladder of development, if need be. That is, if you can't get him to brighten up by talking to him, try using gestures - point at the block tower he is building and put one of your blocks right at his "boundary." Maybe he will reach out and take it. But if he still responds with irritation - pushing your block away, for example - back off and go down one developmental level. Try just exchanging some attention: see if you can exchange a smile and a flirtatious glance with him. See if he'll respond with a little grin. As you do this day in and day out, you should start seeing him loosening his "boundary" and begin relating to you in more complex ways. From exchanging glances, you can move up to exchanging gestures (you hand him a block, he accepts it and adds it to his tower while you clap softly and smile), and then to exchanging words (you say, "That's a great tower!" he says, "Want more blocks!"). Soon, he will learn to be more flexible and will be relating to you at whatever developmental level he has reached.
You can follow the same technique with a preschooler. If your youngster is lining cars up in a row, come in as close as you sense he will let you. Offer to help him make his line of cars longer. Keep your motions slow and relaxed. Try to remember to use voice tones that he is comfortable with. If he is sensitive to touch, be respectful of that. You probably don't want to mess-up his hair or pinch his cheek, for example, if he doesn't like being touched on the head or around the face. Be especially cautious about trying to control his body with grabs or unwelcome hugs. It's better to let him know you are available through a warm look and outstretched arms, gesturing your interest in hugging him and seeing if he'll meet you halfway. Wherever possible, let him be the boss.
With an older youngster, the same principles apply. Approach him slowly. Make sure your movements and voice tone are as relaxing to him as possible. For example, your eight-year-old is sorting through his baseball collection and reciting batting averages. "Cal Ripken batted .280 last year," he says as you enter his room. You sit down on the edge of his bed, respectful of his "boundary" and say quietly, "Oh, I didn't know that." Your goal is to establish a calm relationship on his terms. Let him boss you around. If your youngster is playing Nintendo, ask if you might play together and let him assign you to your role.
Even more than with most kids, the general goal with the oppositional youngster is to be warm, soothing, and respectful as much as possible. Meet his inflexibility with flexibility. For example, you're helping tie his shoes. He pulls his foot away - "Not so tight, stupid. It hurts my foot!" Instead of saying, "Don't talk to me that way!" you could take a deep breath and say, "I guess your foot is a bit sensitive," as you tie his shoe one more time. "Is this way better?" At another point (when he isn't feeling so finicky) you can raise the more general issue of why he gets so mad at you and calls you "stupid" whenever you're not "perfect." Here, you can help him reflect on the fact that maybe he is being extra hard on you. As you help him see this pattern and encourage him to become more flexible, remember that he is probably being harder on himself, calling himself "stupid" or worse.
For this reason, a defensive technique ("You can't talk to me like that!") and then blowing up with rage over his "spoiled, insensitive" behavior (understandable though that response may be) not only doesn't work, but actually strengthens the youngster's oppositional behavior. Whatever your youngster is doing to you, he is probably doing worse to himself. When you come down on him too hard, you may only intensify his self-criticism and probably even self-hatred. Empathy and flexibility, coupled with quiet explanations, help him see that he is being hard on both you and himself.
Firm limits also need to be implemented. Being empathetic doesn't mean always giving the youngster what he wants. But when he is being refused another helping of ice cream, or punished for kicking his sister or trying to scratch his mother, the limit setting needs to be done in a firm but very gentle (and I stress "gentle") manner. Gentle limits coupled with empathy and flexibility will gradually help your youngster be less critical of you and himself.
Expand the youngster's dialogue about what comforts and what bothers him. For example, say he doesn't like the way you put his shirt on. So you try again, only this time you ask him to help direct you so that you are exchanging lots of words and gestures and, at the same time, following his general guidelines. This tends to ease the tension. Trying too hard to get it "right," or putting the shirt on him in a rough or annoyed fashion, will start a battle. As you build his trust and confidence in you, he begins to see you as a colleague who can help him, rather than as an adversary out to get him.
In response to such advice, moms and dads tell me they fear they will "spoil" or overindulge their youngster and worsen his upset, demanding behavior by being so understanding. I tell them that moms and dads can't spoil a youngster by helping him to feel more secure. They spoil him by not setting limits. Underneath a spoiled youngster is a youngster who thinks, "I can't get the boundaries I need. I have to push more and more and more because nothing works." But you need to set limits on his aggression, not on his need for comfort and security. You don't set limits and soothe at the same time. And you need infinite patience - not an easy thing to accomplish.
In setting limits, take advantage of your youngster's debating skills to hash out rules, rewards, and punishments in advance together. Try to avoid surprises and avoid throwing a tantrum yourself.
Also, it is best to try to avoid situations where the family becomes so stressed and exhausted that the moms and dads stop nurturing each other and a great deal of rage develops in the family. Under those circumstances, one parent commonly tries to overprotect the youngster in an anxious, hovering way, unsettling the youngster with his or her needy intrusiveness. And the other parent, feeling deprived and jealous, often becomes overly punitive with the youngster. It's only when moms and dads have their own needs met that they can be truly gentle and collaborative in setting the required limits.
As your youngster gets older, help him to become aware of his own sensitivities and tolerance level. Help him to see what he does and what he doesn't do when he gets overloaded. Urge him to verbalize his feelings and develop a reflective attitude toward his sensitivities. That way, he eventually learns to prepare himself for challenging situations. Because this youngster is so sensitive to feelings of embarrassment and humiliation, his needs must be respected. But, at the same time, see if you can build in some humor, as well. Shared jokes about his perfectionism and critical attitude, if done in a warm and accepting manner, allow him to become aware of his sensitivities. Help him acknowledge some of his tyrant-like and greedy tendencies. "I guess more is always better," you may tease gently. Or you could jokingly ask him how he thinks you should be tortured for being so imperfect!
While empathizing with such a youngster is difficult, it can be made even harder by his aversion to being patronized. You may find, for example, that comments like "I know it must be hard" when said in an exhausted tone of voice will not have the desired effect. On the other hand, using both empathy and humor to help your youngster verbalize his rage and outrage may prove especially helpful. For example, if he is glaring at you and muttering under his breath, complaining that the soup is still too cold or too hot, a remark like, "Gee, I guess you're ready to fire me" or "I guess you think I'd better practice my cooking a little bit more" will respect your youngster as an intelligent, though outraged, individual and is more effective than a patronizing "I know how sensitive your little tongue is."
Moms and dads benefit from self-awareness as well. Sometimes moms and dads feel some embarrassment and guilt toward oppositional or stubborn aspects of themselves. Without being aware of it, they may see pieces of themselves in their youngster and, if they hate that part of themselves, they will often take that hatred out on the youngster, rather than be aware of its origins. All of us have negative characteristics that we aren't proud of. These hidden "truths" often resonate with characteristics in our kids that we don't like. It's as if all the "bad elements" in the collective family psyche hang out together. Being aware of these patterns allows us to take a more supportive and empathetic posture with our kids, rather than an overly critical one.
An oppositional youngster can also learn to choose certain physical activities to decrease his oversensitivity and overload. Many of the same physical exercises I describe for the highly sensitive youngster are also helpful for the oppositional youngster: jumping with joint compression, large muscle movements, and rhythmic actions in space (such as swings or spinning games). Be sensitive to the particular patterns of sensations that comfort your youngster. Again, the most important thing to remember as you develop a program of physical activity is that the oppositional youngster needs to be the boss. Let him direct how fast mommy is swinging the "airplane," or how many times in a row he wants to jump on daddy's tummy.
My Out-of-Control Child: Help for Parents with Oppositional Defiant Children and Teens