Most people have a preconceived notion about a child’s parents—more specifically their ability to parent—when they see a child behaving in a particular way. Let’s admit it, we’ve all been at the grocery store and been quick to judge parents when we saw how their child was acting. Depending on the age of the child, when we see a child throwing a tantrum, we may instantly jump to the conclusion that this parent doesn’t discipline their child well. When we see a child say, “No” when asked to do something, we may assume that this parent isn’t great with follow through on discipline. And when we see a child fold his arms across his chest, scowl and place demands on what his parents will do for him, we’ve likely lost all respect for that parent as our minds go to terrible places of judgment about where and when that parent went wrong.
While parenting plays a significant role in how a child develops, did you know that parenting alone cannot dictate how well behaved a child will be or what kind of personality he will have? There are certain factors or traits within each person that develop because of genetics and the experiences that the child had as a fetus in his mother’s womb. Some studies suggest that high stress levels and anxiety in the mother during pregnancy result in excessive fussiness and difficulties with attention and emotion regulation once the baby is born. Exposure to stress hormones in-utero creates a chemical change that actually rewires the brain to make the child respond with increased fussiness when faced with stress. Much of the discipline that the parent tries to provide to discourage this fussy behavior won’t change the fact that the child is fussy, because the child’s brain is wired to respond that way.
Traits like anxiety, positivity of mood, adaptability to new situations, intensity of responses to stimuli, and other traits are established at or before birth and can only be changed partially by life’s experiences and parenting. This means that a child can be born into an abusive and neglectful family to parents who place very little effort into disciplining and educating the child, yet that child can be a kind, helpful and respectful person despite her upbringing. Likewise, it means that a child can be born into a loving family to parents who emphasize kind behavior and utilize discipline tactics to teach right from wrong, yet that child can be the one throwing the tantrum at the grocery store, defying authority or demanding actions from people in authority.
No one complains much about the kid who develops kind and helpful behaviors despite a poor upbringing. We are just thankful that things like this can happen and don’t question why they happen.
But plenty of people are upset by the second type of child, the one who is born to be oppositional and negative, despite his upbringing. We are judgmental and critical of his parents, whether or not they deserve to be judged for their parenting (some kids are oppositional because their parents have raised them that way, while others are naturally this way despite their parents’ best efforts to sway them towards compliance). We assume that if he isn’t listening to us, or another person in authority, then his parents are to blame for his poor behavior.
If you have never experienced a child like this, consider yourself lucky. These kids are more difficult to parent or teach because the typical discipline techniques that involve consequencing negative behavior simply do not seem to work for these kids. These kids, even when threatened with a consequence like time out, losing a toy, or even getting a spanking, may choose to do the behavior anyway because the behavior—or getting to be right and in control—provides more reward than the punishment costs them.
It’s likely that most of you haven’t experienced parenting a child like this because only about 10% of chidren fall into this type of temperament, and only about 3% of kids have opposition to a clinical level. While it is rare to have a child who is excessively oppositional, there are still parents who are trying to raise and discipline this small population of children; and their efforts are only made more difficult by the judgmental glares and comments from others who assume that they just aren’t parenting their kids.
Whether you are a parent, grandparent, teacher, principal, baby sitter or other adult who has to deal with an oppositional child on a daily basis, consider using these tips to make your life easier in dealing with the oppositional child, as well as to teach him some skills for life. He isn’t going to completely change his personality—ever—but using these tips might help him to better understand how the world works and how he functions within that world. And if you aren’t one of those adults who has been faced with an oppositional child, consider reading these tips to better help you to understand these kids so that you can support those parents and teachers who are trying hard to teach the child to behave better, even if it doesn’t look like it by watching the child!
#1 Ditch the Argument
A child who is defiant, negative or oppositional is always going to believe that he is right, no matter what. These kids are incredibly skilled at arguing topics that have no relevance to life. You may say that the sky is blue, and he knows that the sky is blue, but for the sake of the argument, the sky is most definitely a different color than blue today.
No matter how right you are, an oppositional child is going to believe that he is more right. No amount of arguing is going to change his opinion. That’s why it is unhelpful to get into unnecessary arguments with him. Steer clear from arguments with an oppositional child unless they are absolutely necessary. Identify which issues in life are most important (like being kind or respectful and finishing school work) and only argue those issues with the child. Any other arguments should be avoided because you won’t win and you’ll have wasted some incredibly valuable time.
On a positive note: Oppositional kids have great arguing skills, and will grow up to have excellent skills in persuasion. As long as these kids can learn how to manage their opposition enough to keep themselves out of trouble in their adolescence and adulthood, they can grow up to be very skilled sales people, lawyers, and politicians.
#2 Ask Open Ended Questions
If you have ever met a negative child, you know that the first answer out of this kid’s mouth is almost always “No” before you’ve even finished your sentence. You ask your son, “Would you like pancakes for breakfast?” and before you’ve even said the word ‘pancakes’ he is already forming his “No!” response. Among other things, kids with a negative personality or mood will say “No” instantly to something that is suggested to them, before even thinking about what’s being asked. Even when you know that he wants this thing, once he has said “No,” you’ve lost the battle. If you try to get him to reconsider, he becomes more adamant about the fact that he said “No” and the battle gets worse and worse as you go on.
Instead of asking these kids yes or no questions or making commands that the child will instantly argue, consider asking open-ended questions that don’t allow a yes or no answer. Instead of asking, “Do you want pancakes for breakfast?” ask, “What would you like for breakfast this morning, pancakes, toast or waffles?” This allows the child to make his own decision and it avoids the yes/no dilemma.
Here are some examples:
|Have you finished cleaning your room yet?||When do you think you’ll be done cleaning your room?|
|It’s time to go. Get in the car.||Which CD would you like to listen to in the car today?|
|Is that how we treat our friends?
*If he’s really thinking, a truly oppositional kid will remember to answer yes to this one!
|How do we treat our friends?|
|Let’s get ready for bed.||It’s almost time for bed. Which pajamas are you going to wear tonight?|
Negative and oppositional kids just want to exert their opinion and prove their point. So, the more often you allow them to give their opinion through these open-ended questions, the less they have to argue with you.
#3 Focus on the Positive
The advice to focus on the positive is one of the most suggested pieces of parenting advice. This is because children love and desire attention in any form that they can get it. Often times, kids are able to get adults’ attention much quicker through negative behaviors than they are using kind and helpful behavior. This is especially true for a child who is oppositional or negative. These kids aren’t skilled at getting attention through positive means, so they use their negative behaviors to gain attention. As they get attention, those skills in creating negative behaviors are strengthened, and their skills in gaining positive attention or worsened through lack of experience.
When I offer this piece of advice to parents and teachers, I typically get two responses:
- I always point out the positive things that he does.
- He’s never doing anything positive. He’s always being mean to me or someone else.
Typically when someone tells me that they “always” point out the positives, this means that every once in a while they notice a good behavior and point it out. Always doesn’t mean always in these situations and the adults are typically overestimating their focus on the positive.
Remember that most parts of the day are typically positives. Each time a child is sitting quietly, participating in activities, eating the food you put down for him, or sleeping, these are positive things. If the child has hundreds of positive activities in a day and only a few negative activities, yet he gets attention for all of his negative activities and only one or two of the positives, he has learned that negative behaviors get him more of your attention than doing what you’ve asked. If you are truly focused on pointing out the positives, you should be exhausted by the end of the day by how many times you had to point out how great he was doing.
And if you have a child who is very oppositional and it is a chore to find any positive, think about the littlest thing that he did well that day. If you are unable to come up with any options, a little trick that I teach child care providers is to wait until his mouth is full at lunch and then praise him for how quietly he is sitting! This helps to point out that there are times when he is doing what he’s supposed to be doing and you should be able to find at least a few times during the day when there are opportunities to praise him.
#4 Ignore the Negative
Oppositional kids use negative behaviors to control their surroundings. The use of control is essential to an oppositional kid because it helps him to feel safer, more in control, and less likely to be harmed. While this is a survival tactic for the child, it’s also a habit that is going to get him into trouble in the future. He will need to develop a healthier, more socially acceptable way of controlling his world to be successful in the future. If he continues to use negative behaviors to get attention, he is going to get into trouble at school and ultimately with the law. And, as he gets older and loses that cute preschooler charm, it’s going to get ugly.
He needs to learn that negative behaviors—even though they are natural to him—will not get him what he wants in life. The only way that this will work for him is if he learns over time that those negative behaviors do not achieve what he is hoping for. In conjunction with focusing on the positives, thus encouraging more positive behaviors, adults should be sure to ignore any negative behavior that isn’t a direct threat to the child or another person.
Ignoring can take two forms:
- Not looking at, talking about or reacting in any way to a behavior, OR
- Not providing the desired attention and redirecting the child to the right way to get the attention
When using the first method of ignoring, adults just need to make sure that the child is in a safe place and that no one else is going to be harmed. This is hard to do when a younger sibling is present, although it is possible if the adult can pick up the other child for protection. This method means not talking or persuading the child to act in a different way and it usually escalates before the behavior stops.
The second method involves ignoring of the negative behavior, but recognizing that the negative behavior is there for attention. The adult says something like, “I can’t hear you when you use your baby voice. I’ll wait until I hear your big boy voice and then I’ll be able to help you.” Then, the adult waits for the positive behavior and does not give in until the positive behavior occurs. Notice that with this tactic, rules 1 and 2 are present. This isn’t a time to get into an argument with the child or try to get the child to say yes to your command. Instead, you state that you will wait for the positive behavior to occur to give him the attention that he desires. Then, when the positive behavior occurs, rule 3 comes into play and you reward him through attention. Don’t spend the next 20 minutes talking about what he did wrong. Just focus on the fact that he learned to use an appropriate behavior to get your attention, reward him with your attention and move on with your day.
#5 Use Natural Consequences
Generally speaking, natural consequences are great for all kids to teach the concept of why rules exist and what will naturally happen as a consequence if those rules are broken. However, natural consequences are essential for kids who are oppositional because for them, the benefits of misbehaving may outweigh the consequences that are offered to them. These kids need to know about the consequences that life will present to them instead of linking their behavior to a consequence that you will provide, which will disappear once the child is older.
If you want your child to learn how to keep a clean room so that he will develop organizational skills for school, work and home life, then the consequence for lack of organization must match what life will do to him in the future if he is disorganized. When he is an adult, he isn’t going to receive a grownup time out (aka jail) if he is messy. Instead of offering a time out for not cleaning his room, he needs to experience a consequence that is likely to occur if he continues to be messy throughout childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
An option could be that he could lose—for good—any toys that are left sitting out on the floor. This teaches him that if he doesn’t keep track of his things in an organized manner, his things could be lost or broken and he may not ever find them again. This is what will happen to him in life, and it is much more likely to motivate him to maintain some organization in his life than the threat of a three-minute time out because once he is finished with his time out, he would return right back to all of his toys to play.
The tips above are steps to take to discipline and guide oppositional kids in the right directions for behaviors in life as a child, adolescent and adult. While these should help to improve the child’s behavior in the long run, it’s important to know that the first few days of using these tips may make your life a lot more difficult. In the long-run, it will make your life easier and will improve your child’s chances at success in school, work and relationships. But today, you won’t be reaping the rewards. Today you will feel tired, helpless and fearful that your oppositional child will never learn how to behave. Because of that, I’ll offer one more tip that is more for your own well-being than that of your child’s:
Always think before you speak or react to an oppositional child, “Is what I’m about to do going to make this better or worse?” If your answer is worse, then I’d suggest picking something else to do!