The Opppositional Child

The Opppositional Child

Meri Wallace
Meri Wallace

Meri Wallace, LCSW, a parenting expert and child and family therapist for over thirty years, grew up in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Meri completed her Masters degree in Social Work at NYU, specializing in child development. Meri writes a blog for “Psychology Today”, and is the author of “Birth Order Blues” (Henry Holt and Co.) and “Keys to Parenting Your Four Year Old” (Barron's Educational Series.) She has been a columnist for Sesame Street Parents, New York Family Magazine,and Brooklyn Parent and has been a consultant to Children’s Television Workshop. She is frequently interviewed by national publications including Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, and Parents Magazine.

Some children give their parents a harder time than others

It’s normal for small children to run the other way when you call, constantly test you, and refuse to listen, at times. Even older kids act that way. But some children give their parents a harder time than others. This may have to do with the child’s temperament, a reaction to a change in the family, a cry for more attention, or some patterns of interactions with the parents.

This behavior leaves parents feeling angry, powerless, and even frightened. The child ends up feeling bad about herself, because everyone is always yelling at her. Because you have a specific pattern of locking horns by now, changing your relationship will be hard work, but it can happen. Here are some steps you can take to help your child to be more cooperative.

Establish firm, consistent limits and make sure that you follow through, despite his persistent protest. For example, after announcing, “You cannot eat on the sofa,” when he’s ignoring you, give him a choice: “You can eat at the table, or we can put your sandwich away for later.” Offering a choice will give him the feeling that he has some control, and he may become more cooperative. If this does not work, be sure to take his hand and lead him to the kitchen table to finish eating.

If you detect that a battle has to do with an emotional issue, such as your recent lack of availability, address her feelings (“I think you’re not listening because you’re angry. Maybe you feel that I haven’t been spending enough time with you lately.”). Setting up specific outings with her and marking them on a calendar will help her to feel less combative.

Manipulating the environment can help you to enforce your limits and cut down on daily battles over the same issues. For example, if he is constantly breaking the rules by climbing up on the counter to get to the cookie jar, moving it to a secure cabinet, out of his reach, will eliminate the conflict. Putting a hamper in your child’s room will help him remember to toss his pajamas into the laundry.

The manner in which you communicate with a combative child can also make a difference. Try to neutralize your tone of voice when you make a request, and convey that you trust her to cooperate. Parents who are used to a battle can unknowingly communicate that they expect one, and the child will rise to the occasion. When approaching your child, avoid questioning her, for instance: “Would you like to wash your hands?” Instead, state exactly what you want her to do: “You need to wash up before dinner.”

Avoid setting up battles by immediately say no when he asks for something. This word is like waving a red cape at a bull. You can buy some time by repeating his request out loud: “Let’s see, you want to watch television.” Next, enlist his effort in problem-solving. You can say, “We have a problem. You want to watch television, and we need to go out. What should we do?” Acknowledge his wish too, for instance: “I know you really want to watch a show, but we have to get to the bank before it closes.” A positive compromise can work well, such as, “Let’s tape it.”

Try not to overreact to everything, and stay calm. She will note the difference in your reaction, and get the message: “We’re changing the way we interact.” If she liked getting you upset before and is no longer successful, she might back off and change her behavior.

There is no magic wand that can get your child to listen. However, as you begin to employ some of these techniques, your child should note that there has been a change and that you are no longer willing to participate in a battle. Talking about issues and problem-solving together is going to be the new way of communicating.