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Helpful Tips for Parenting the Oppositional Child

Tuesday, March 3, 2015
oddYou ask your 8-year-old daughter to clean up her room. She refuses.
Your preschooler son throws temper tantrums in the grocery store when you won’t buy his favorite cereal.
Your teenage daughter constantly argues with you over every little thing.
It’s wearing you out.
While all children oppose their parents from time to time – especially when stressed, tired or hungry – frequent defiance and opposition tax even the most patient parents, says Elizabeth Newlin, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and director of the Adolescent Treatment Program at The Menninger Clinic. Here are her tips for parenting an oppositional child:

Take a break

When your child misbehaves, pause and breathe,” Dr. Newlin says. “What you say to yourself about your child’s misbehavior matters.” If you see your child as defiant, manipulative, grumpy, annoying, selfish or difficult, your child may catch on and fulfill your expectations, despite your best attempts to conceal your emotions.

Be curious

Instead of immediately reacting to your child’s behavior, be curious about what’s driving it. “Your child or adolescent may not understand their behavior themselves,” Dr. Newlin says. “Once children are upset, they aren’t in a place to learn. Intervene to restore calm, and then work on creating understanding. Remember that as the parent, you are needed support for the child or adolescent in the beginning stages of self-discovery.”

Set appropriate limits and be consistent

Dr. Newlin advises setting appropriate limits, followed by consequences and a well-timed discussion when your child misbehaves. Consistency is key.
“Intermittently enforcing consequences doesn’t work with children,” Dr. Newlin says. “Every time you let them off the hook, they learn that if they throw a big enough fit, they can get out of trouble.” Natural consequences for misbehavior, such as missing out on a school party as a result of not turning in homework, work best, she adds.  

Catch them being good

“Children with more difficult temperaments can quickly begin to experience themselves as bad due to their more frequent need for redirection, correction or rejection by peers,” Newlin says. “It is critical to offer them a balance.” For every one time your child is corrected, give him three affirming or positive statements, she advises.

Spend one-on-one time

“Demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice your time to be with your child,” Dr. Newlin says. Quality time may mean playing video games together, sitting around at home doing nothing or eating pizza at the mall. “When you spend time just listening to them, you might be surprised by how much they are willing to share,” she adds.

Take care of yourself

“Like any job, parenting requires time and energy,” Dr. Newlin says. “Exercise, sleep, nutrition, supportive relationships – the basics matter.” She encourages parents to enjoy a “hefty dose of self-compassion” for themselves. Parents can also take solace in knowing that their child’s genetic makeup plays an important role in their behavior. An estimated 10 percent of children have more difficult temperaments – they are easily upset, less adaptable to change and high strung.

Seek professional help when necessary

Frequent episodes of misbehavior may signal a behavioral disorder, such as oppositional defiant disorder, an ongoing pattern of uncooperative, defiant and hostile behavior toward authority figures that seriously interferes with a child’s day-to-day functioning. Difficult temperaments are also associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, major depressive disorder, anxiety, substance abuse and autism.
“If you feel there is a lack of support available, or you are running into the same difficult patterns of interacting over and over again, consider seeking professional help from a qualified family therapist,” Dr. Newlin says.