Tips on Managing Oppositional/Defiant Behaviors in Your Child: PART 3

Defiant stance
"I don't WANT to!!"

Here’s the 3rd post in this weekly series about managing oppositional/defiant behavior.

Rule 3: Make your request into a game.

To utilize this technique, you have to be creative.   Creative, not brilliant!  If you can’t come up with games easily, brainstorm with your partner, a teacher, or a fellow mother to come up with some ideas.   The game does not have to be ingenious as long as you provide the enthusiasm. You can also present a scenario to me here via the comments form, and I’ll try to come up with a game for your specific struggle.

When it comes to oppositional behavior, the child digs in their heels to gain a sense of control over their environment (which includes you).   It may be because of other areas of their life that feels out of control, or it may be because they truly get overwhelmed at the prospect of any task in which they have to execute something.   When someone asks you to do something, you must a)understand what they are requesting of you, b) organize a plan of how to execute that task, then c) gather yourself together, which entails mental and physical organization, and execute that task.   If a child is tired or hungry, even little tasks can seem overwhelming.   However, most children enjoy playing games even if they are silly and there is no real reward at the end, and a sense of competition or trying to beat a previous record may provide an organizing force which they can wrap themselves around.  This provides a focus for an otherwise mundane task, plus serves as a means to master the situation (increased control.)

In our clinic, we’d see patients back to back for 45-60 minutes at a time.  This was enough time for the child to get out toys and start really playing while I was speaking with mom.  If the child started stalling upon cleanup time, it created a pressure situation that threatened to throw off a packed schedule.   It’s tempting to just clean up the toys yourself, but we wanted to model responsibility and structure.

The solution?  Everything’s a game! If I saw the child start to manipulate and try to get out of cleanup, I’d say, “Hey Colin, let’s see how fast you can put the toys into the basket and I’m going to time you.  I bet you can’t do it in less than a minute!  Ready, set, …go!!!”  Then I’d make a big show of looking at my watch and counting “10….15….okay now 30 seconds…you only have 30 seconds left!”  As they neared the end of the time, I’d continue to exclaim: “ohmygosh you’re going to finish WAY ahead of time-I can’t believe it!!  This has never been done before!”  etc etc.   By the next time, the child would know the ritual and clean up the toys like their life would depended on it, and of course each time they’d “break their own record”.

If you’re animated enough, for a younger child this is often enough.  You can see how this is a lot nicer way to end the session than me or his mother “counting to 10 or else!” (which can be effective too, but is negative rather than positive).    Not every child will respond to a game challenge, but creating a race, beating a previous record, and cheering them on is entertaining for most kids.

Important points to remember during the “game”:

  • Notice the language in the task request: “how fast you can put your toys in the bucket” uses slightly different wording than “put your toys away” or “time to clean up”.   It’s not a command, and doesn’t have connotations of ending play-rather, it’s a challenge.
  • The more details in the game, the more interesting it becomes.  Start out simple, and add on new rules if they child’s interest starts to wane. Example: with the above scenario, you could add some kind of sensory aspect, like “for however many seconds you finish before 1 minute, you can roll that many marbles into the basket.”
  • If you find yourself saying, “I don’t have the energy to be a circus clown every day…”- think again of the return on investment.  Would you rather spend 5 minutes being animated and fun, or 20 minutes growing increasingly irritated?
  • Signify the end of the task with a high five, a “strong work!” or other such acknowledgment, or a “hooray!” and jump in the air.
    parent child high five
    "You did it!"

    Kids think it’s hilarious when adults do this.  If you feel ridiculous, who cares?  Pat yourself on the back for giving your child what they need.   “Marking” the end of the task with acknowledgment shows them you’ve noticed they finished, and helps to transition to the next activity of the day.

Do you have a specific situation where you feel it’s impossible to come up with an appropriate game?  Do you have a special game you play with your child to accomplish task completion?  Share your dilemma or idea below!