How To Handle Oppositional Behavior in Your Children

One of the most common and difficult problems I see is the child with entrenched opposition. When this problem is in its most minor form the child is reluctant to comply with any request. When it is major, home life becomes deadlocked and parents feel they have lost control.

You ask politely, ‘Would you please do this?

They reply, ‘Try and make me!’

You draw a line in the sand; they jump over the limit and ask, ‘What are you going to make of it?’

Parents with compliant children have no understanding of how difficult this can be. Opposition generates immense hostility, which ruins relationships.

Oppositional Behavior Children

When I am told, ‘My eleven-year-old refuses to do anything she is asked,’ I know this is not a new behavior. Opposition usually starts at lout the age of three years and gets deeper as parent and child become more entrenched. Opposition hits its peak in teenage, by which time it is almost impossible to move.

The amount of opposition in a child depends on their individual style temperament and how this has been managed. Many children are created with an obliging temperament, and whatever we do they generally remain compliant. But most children have the potential to some position. If they are nurtured and encouraged, this rarely poses much problem, but if they are parented with force, confrontation and hostility, this seed may sprout into considerable trouble.

A few children are created with a large potential for opposition. Even with the best parents, behavior will be a battle, and when pushed heavily these children become defiant, angry and totally immovable. Some of these extreme groups are spiteful and paranoid, blaming all the other rat bags for their problems.

There is good and bad news about opposition. The bad is the damage it does to families where mums and dads may get no pleasure from parenting. The good news is that most turn into well-adjusted, normal adults. Many will later feel remorse and wish they had done things differently, but this is often at their parent’s funeral, and by then it’s too late.

Opposition is extremely hard to treat. Be realistic in your expectations. A twenty per cent change in six months is an appropriate goal.

  • Go gently with the difficult three- and four-year-old. This is the best age to nip opposition in the bud. At three and four years be positive, encourage the good, let the unimportant pass and steer around confrontation.
  • With the oppositional school-age child avoid debate as this escalates and places parents on the back foot.
  • Don’t rely on reason. This does not impress the oppositional child.
  • Avoid hostile, cold, passive-aggressive or sarcastic comments.
  • Avoid ultimatums and rigid limits. These provide a clear line to challenge.
  • Avoid backing the child into a corner. Allow them to feel they have some choice and power over the outcome: ‘You can choose not to do your homework now but you will be choosing not to watch “The Simpsons”, it’s your choice.’
  • Communicate in a way that transmits an expectation of compliance.
  • Talk in a calm, matter-of-fact way. Use the broken gramophone technique, quietly repeating the message.
  • Use the technique of active ignoring. Briefly move to another room, or water the garden, then return and re-engage.
  • Use an ‘I’ statement. ‘I’ feel sad when we are angry with each other.’
  • Make your statement and move on. Don’t hang around waiting for retaliation.
  • Immediately grasp any good behavior and appreciate the positives.
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  • Work as a team: ‘We managed that well together.’
  • Calmly give a choice: ‘You can do this now or I can wake you early and you can do it before school.’
  • With older children consider a trade-off: ‘You can choose not to do your chores and I can choose whether to drive you to soccer training.’
  • Withdrawal of privileges may be of benefit, though it can backfire. ‘No television tonight’; ‘To bed half an hour early’; ‘No telephone’; ‘No friend to stay over’; ‘It’s your choice’.

Filed Under: Family & Relationships


About the Author: Roberta Southworth is a psychiatrist by profession. She likes to help out people by writing informative tips on how people can to solve their family and relationship issues. She is currently staying in Ireland. She has 5 years of couple counseling experience.

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