Do you have an argumentative, short-tempered child who is quick to blame others and is easily annoyed? These are characteristics of what I call an "oppositional child." The psychological diagnosis is "oppositional defiant disorder," and its key clinical features, as listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), are:
1. Often loses temper.
2. Often argues with adults.
3. Often actively defies or refuses to comply with adults' requests or rules.
4. Often deliberately annoys people.
5. Often blames others for own mistakes or misbehavior.
6. Often is touchy or easily annoyed by others.
7. Often is angry and resentful.
8. Often is spiteful or vindictive.
Notice the word often. Every child displays some of these traits some of the time. But if your child is often oppositional, your parenting skills have probably been tested to the limits many times.
When dealing with an oppositional child, any situation can become a crisis. There doesn't have to be a rational reason. Many parents I work with make statements like, "I don't know what happened. First he said he wanted to go to his friend's house, then he said he wanted to have his friend come here. I told him he needed to make up his mind, and then he totally blew up."
The oppositional child tells you a lot about how he is feeling through his behavior. The problem is that you don't get any warning - you only get the chaos.
The first piece of advice I have is this: You need professional help if you are raising a child who is extremely and often oppositional. You can make the changes I am about to suggest, but be aware that the oppositional child is the most difficult child to raise. If you have an oppositional child, you and your family are at heightened risk for anxiety, physical abuse, divorce, and substance abuse. I strongly suggest intervention for families living with an oppositional child.
Although the oppositional child is one of the toughest parenting challenges, there are things you can do to decrease the frequency with which you will be subjected to your child's use of manipulative strategies. Below are 10 proactive parenting measures I recommend.
1. Choose your battles wisely. Sometimes it's beneficial to simply walk away, especially if your child has you in a trap you can't possibly get out of.
2. Always avoid power struggles. Power struggles are distractions from the issue at hand.
3. Develop your ability to appear calm when faced with frustration. Watching you fall apart is gratifying to children, and shows them they have gained the upper hand.
4. Develop and maintain a consistent environment. Devise an itinerary for the day, and adhere to it. Create routines and rituals - such as focusing on homework as soon as the child gets home. Such habitual practices diminish power struggles.
5. Develop your ability to predict difficult times and situational triggers for your child. Plan ahead for tough situations so you can maintain calm and integrity when they erupt. For example, if getting a child ready for school is routinely a struggle with Mom, have Dad do it instead.
6. Develop plans to deal with inappropriate behaviors before your child engages in them (and post these plans in the home). Oppositional children are quick to pick up on - and exploit - parents' inconsistent responses and behaviors. Determine consequences ahead of time and always enforce them.
7. Work on changing only one or two behaviors at a time. Be patient. If you are always focusing on the behavior of the day, your child will feel overwhelmed and criticized. Instead, have a talk with him, tell him the one or two behaviors that you will be focusing on, and then do just that. Praise him when he does well. When he is 80 to 90 percent responsive in those areas, have another talk with him and set two more behavioral goals.
8. Use responsibilities to reward your child. Giving your child the privilege of having power and control over her own environment will help her want to earn this privilege. Responsibility equals reward.
9. Seek out social support. Social interaction is a clear antidote to parenting stress.
10. Take time off from parenting. Vacations are a great way to replenish your parental battery. Find someone to watch the kids and head out of town.
Granted, the oppositional child is a difficult challenge. Try some of the solutions above, but if they don't work, don't despair. It may be beyond your immediate skills. If so, get help from an expert in oppositional defiant disorder.
David Swanson, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in children and teens suffering from ADHD, oppositional and defiant behavior, anxiety, depression, and social problems. His new book is Help! My Kid Is Driving Me Crazy: The 17 Ways Kids Manipulate Their Parents and What You Can Do About It. You can learn more about him at www.DrDavidSwanson.com.