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Using Reverse Psychology as a Parenting Strategy

In order to really take advantage of “reverse psychology” as an effective parenting tool (and not have anyone catch on to it), parents really need to have a clear understanding of what it is and how it works.

Parents are using reverse psychology when they intentionally argue in favor of a decision or behavior while secretly wanting their child to endorse the opposite decision or behavior. The technique makes use of the psychological phenomenon of “reactance” (i.e., an emotional reaction in opposition to perceived restrictions on a person’s behavioral freedoms).

Reverse psychology is an important tool that parents can use to influence the decisions of their children. The technique tends to work best when parents reinforce independence with resistant teens. In order to reinforce independence in a reverse psychology format, parents argue against themselves versus the behavior they would like their teenager to engage in.

Here are some examples of “good” reverse psychology:
  • You tell your defiant teenage daughter that you can’t make her do anything that she doesn’t want to do – even if you feel you have evidence to back up your advice – and that only she can decide what’s best for her. Now you are arguing against yourself as the “person of influence” – and reverse that to say that your daughter is in the driver’s seat, free and autonomous to decide for herself. If reverse psychology works its magic, this may make your daughter argue in favor of YOUR expertise and the validity of YOUR advice.
  • Your 12-year-old son refuses to eat because he is engrossed in watching television, so you tell him that it’s “bedtime” since he’s done with “dinnertime.” This may spur some positive action from your son who is yearning to have more television time on his schedule. 
  • Your 7-year-old child hates vegetables, so you say, "I bet you can't eat all of those peas in 30 seconds." 
  • Your preschooler doesn't want to take a bath in the evening, so you say, “Okay, let's just go straight to bed then.” This will probably work, because most children would rather do almost anything than go to bed early.

So, you’re basically trying to get your kids to do the exact opposite of what they think you really want them to do.

Here is an example of “bad” reverse psychology:
  • Your trying to get your child to put his toys away, so you say, "I'll put these away for you. You probably don't even know how to fit them all back in the box anyway." Now, even though he will probably insist that he can do it all by himself, you may have also hurt his self-esteem a bit by insinuating that he is not smart enough to put toys away. Make sense?

Reverse psychology often works well with defiant children, because many just want to do the opposite of what parents are telling them. Use reverse psychology techniques sparingly, though. Choose your words and situations carefully. Whatever reverse psychology technique is used, be sure to practice and make it believable. Having a reputation as a “manipulator” is not good.

If you haven’t used reverse psychology on your kids yet, it’s time to add it to your parenting toolbox. Kids are notorious for waiting for you to tell them something – and then doing the exact opposite. They thrive on doing the opposite of whatever they know is expected of them (which may very well be a version of reverse psychology in and of itself).

By telling your kids the opposite of what you want them to do, they may (after being slightly confused) do exactly what you want them to. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that kids are very impressionable. Only use reverse psychology in special circumstances, and avoid using it in ways that could harm your youngster’s self-esteem.

No matter when or how you decide to use reverse psychology, know that there is a major difference between psychology and manipulation. Using reverse psychology every once in a while is okay (so long as no one is going to be injured by it). If you take it too far, or use it too often, you will quickly become known as a manipulator. Remember that once tarnished, your reputation is something you can never get back. Also, if you are dealing with compliant kids (as opposed to resistant ones), it may be better to ignore reverse psychology altogether and just be direct.

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