Oppositional Behavior. What to do?

Oppositional behaviors can be very challenging for parents and teachers. By oppositional, I mean essentially when we want a child to do (or stop doing) something and they won’t comply. Some kids present with stronger versions of oppositionality than others, and there is even a diagnosable disorder called Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) that can be identified by a professional in certain circumstances. In my clinical practice, I see lots of kids (and parents) who are stuck in cycles of oppositionality, but where a label of true ODD is not warranted. Most of the time, it’s just that both parties are stuck and can’t find a way out.   

Temperament and development play a role in just how much oppositional behavior we get from kids. The temperament trait of persistence can supercharge a child’s drive toward things they want—or away from our idea or request—and can contribute to oppositional moments. Natural periods of developmental growth, such as between the ages of 3-5 years and again in the early teens, can produce increased need for power and control for kids. Neurodevelopmental issues like ADHD can also contribute to oppositionality. This is because kids with this disorder often have a harder time with cognitive flexibility and transitioning away from their preferred ideas and activities—which can lead to intense power struggles.

The important thing to remember is that oppositionality happens for a reason. 

First, it’s simply the assertion of the child’s will. Kids need to develop their sense of control as they age to prepare them for moving out into the big world. This control includes domains such as their activities, opinions, and yes, practicing how to say ‘no’ and assert for their wants and needs. It is critical for us to remember that oppositional behavior is a developmentally appropriate drive that needs to be worked with and not squashed. If we consistently override a child’s desire for control, they will not develop enough personal strength and then risk developing a victim mentality.

In over two decades of working with kids I have only met a handful of kids who are truly oppositional (opposing adults for no recognizable purpose). The vast majority of kids (even very difficult ones) are simply trying to figure out how to practice having power.

To be clear, demanding behaviors, power struggles, and high levels of parent-child conflict are real and happen often. And there are strategies that we can practice to decrease these things with our kids. But we need to start by throwing out the idea that kids are working against us just for the sake of doing so. 

Okay, so what does the research tell us? It turns out there are some things we can do with kids that studies show are helpful in turning oppositional behaviors around. All of the suggestions revolve around developing a cooperative dynamic in the parent-child relationship. Here are a few of the main ideas.

  • Be the adult. Since kids’ brains won’t be fully developed until their mid-20s, it’s our job to step up and lead the process. This means first working on our own reactivity, blame, criticism, nitpicking, anger, and need for control. This is often the hardest part to change.  
  • Be generous with praise. Appreciation is the antidote to resentment. Notice and appreciate when your child complies with requests and cooperates with plans—no matter how small. Every child, EVERY CHILD, has the need for praise. It’s what fills their motivational reservoir and builds their self-esteem. Don’t hold back on praise no matter how difficult your child has been. If they do it right, stop and notice.  
  • Spent fun time together. Good times create good feelings and good feelings build the desire for cooperation. Step out of the parent role and do things regularly that are fun for both of you. Here’s a tip: follow the child’s lead. Taking interest in the interests of a child at any age is a sure way to open the door to cooperation and mutual respect. 
  • Show pride in your child. Knowing their parents are proud of them makes kids feel proud of themselves. This builds confidence and emotional resilience, which are the foundation for mental and emotional health. Find things to be proud of and let your child know you feel that way.
  • Be consistent and clear with rules. Rules create structure and structure helps kids manage themselves. Have some flexibility with circumstance, but generally stick to your household rules and review them occasionally with your kids. Have them add rules they think are important to the list, to get them invested in them. Have fair and consistent consequences for rules not followed.
  • Talk about their feelings. Ask them about their feelings, especially the negative ones. Validate how frustrating it is not to be in charge and to have to do things they don’t want to. If your kids feel like you understand them, they will try harder to understand what you want. 
  • Repair. Studies show that repair maintains healthy bonds in relationships. Don’t let resentment build by letting difficult situations pass without a brief conversation or review about what happened. Sit down with your child after things have calmed down and talk about what went wrong. Be the leader and apologize for your part and spend time asking them about their feelings and experience. The idea is to avoid lecturing and demanding an apology from the child, and instead, model how to apologize and take responsibility for your part, and then encourage them to do the same. 
  • Engage in problem-solving. Ask them to help think of solutions to avoid patterns of conflict. Try some of their ideas to show them you respect them and their opinions.
  • End criticism. Frequent parental criticism is a risk factor for many childhood behavior disorders and profoundly damages parent-child relations (marriages too). Change criticism into encouragement to make good choices, and then review and repair if poor choices are made.
  • Encourage clear communication. If your child relies on ignoring or just saying ‘No!” then ask them to put words to their protest. Words can lead you to a cooperative dialogue—ignoring and gestures are indirect and are much harder to work with. 
  • Have chores. Every child should have a few age-appropriate chores they are expected to do at regular intervals. This gives them a sense of responsibility in the family. 

Notice that these suggestions don’t overly-focus on parents asserting authority or demanding compliance. Instead, they are the building blocks for establishing (or re-establishing) cooperative and respectful relationships that reduce the need for manipulation, power-struggles, and opposition. Practice them with your child and focus on building these skills in place of getting repeatedly pulled into cycles of struggle and opposition. 

For more information on parenting, see Dr. Kempler’s book, Better Behavior: Helping Kids Create Change and Improve Relationships, available at Amazon.com.