Does your child’s oppositional and defiant behavior drive you crazy?! Have you read the criteria for O.D.D. and thought “OMG, that’s it!! That’s what my child has!”
The fact is, this “disorder” is what is called a wastebasket diagnosis. Oppositional/defiant traits are overlapping symptoms of many disorders. These behaviors are also a part of normal development, so they are universal!
Starting this week, I’ll start of series of posts on understanding this behavior and tips for managing it. Some tips you will have heard before, but I’ll provide a foundation for why they work and how they improve overall mental health. (When we understand why something works, we are more likely to do it!)
Other tips may be new, or will be combined with a new twist to improve effectiveness. Now for this week’s tip:
Tip #1: Empathize but don’t give in. Example: Your child asks for a cookie before dinner. You tell her no, it will spoil her dinner, and that she already had some sweets today. She keeps asking, negotiating, and promising she’ll eat her dinner anyway. She’s tired and you know you’re headed for a meltdown. You’re tired too, but it’s essential that you don’t give in.
Now, typically an oppositional child, or a child who has inconsistent discipline for whatever reason (you or your partner is inconsistent, or she has multiple caregivers with different rules)-will start to up the ante. Let’s say she keeps crying louder and louder, then exclaims she’s not going to eat anything at all. You can empathize by saying things like, “I know what you really wanted, and I know it’s hard when you don’t get something you think your tummy really wants. Let’s see what else your tummy wants!” You can comfort her at the same time. This way you are naming what she’s feeling, which is important for bonding and security, but giving her healthy limits. She may still be mad, but at least she might feel you understand that she really feels it’s the end-of-the-world.
Let’s say after this she continues to refuse to eat, so she goes to bed without dinner. Now her mom starts to worry and feel guilty: “Should I just give her a cookie so she has something in her system?” Of course not! Kids do not naturally starve themselves. Again, you can go into her room and offer her a healthy snack, and say, “I know we had a tough night tonight. Shall we have some apple slices and peanut butter together?” She may or may not partake, but don’t push it and don’t keep offering her choices to persuade her. You’re in control here, and she has another chance to make a good choice. (If you keep trying to persuade or bend over backwards to please her, you’re placing all the cards in her hands.)
You can even take it a step further by saying, “I know it’s confusing because sometimes mommy gives in when she sees you crying and wants to make you happy. But we have to follow the food rules. Mommy has to follow them too and sometimes I don’t like it either!!”
If you’re in a place where you are seriously making a new resolve to not give in, you can address this directly with your child. Lead with empathy by saying, “This might be hard for you because I wasn’t always strict with this rule before. But now we’re starting fresh and following the no-cookies-rule before dinner rule.” This might not seem to make any impact at the time, but it’ll help your child be prepared for the next time it comes up. It plants a seed and also validates her feelings.
Key things to keep in mind, at all times:
1. If your child is accustomed to you giving in, when you don’t do it she will up the ante, and you will think, why am I doing this? It just makes things worse! Know that this rough patch is natural-expect it and be prepared. However, the worst thing you can do is not give in, not give in, not give in, and then give in! Now you’ve taught your child to persist until they get their way. So don’t make statements about there being “a new sheriff in town” until you’re fully prepared for this rocky period. It will end, I promise!
2. This is an investment. An investment in your child’s mental health, well-being, social development, and in this case, her physical health. An investment means you do not get immediate pay off, but rather improved quality of life over time.
3. Never mock your child or her feelings. No judgment here; sometimes parents do this out of exasperation, or in an attempt to make the child laugh. Mocking completely backfires and shows her that you don’t understand. If she feels you’re not getting it, her behavior must get “louder” in an attempt to make you understand.
Do you have a real life example of using empathy to manage oppositional defiant behavior? Please share your stories, comments, and suggestions below.
Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D.