Sometimes I believe my son actually ENJOYS all the negativity his oppositional and defiant behavior brings upon him. Could that possibly be the case? Can a child really “enjoy” being in trouble constantly? If so, what can I do about it?
The short answer is, “Absolutely!” Like so many facets of behavior, however, there are deeper issues that play into what’s going on.
Power and Control
One huge issue is the power and control a youngster like your son experiences when he can control the emotions and behavior of an adult. Early on in my practice, I had a young patient who had his father by the throat (figuratively speaking, of course). He could make a lot of stuff happen by squeezing on that hold. Unfortunately, Dad played right into the son’s game. All the boy had to do was forget a chore, for instance, and Dad would go into a tirade.
Just imagine this picture. All the boy had to do was neglect taking out the trash and he got a first-rate floor show, and he knew he made it happen, and could make it happen any time he wanted. Although the boy didn’t like the hard edge of Dad’s wrath (consequences bordered on abuse), part of him delighted in the power and control he had over the old man.
Your situation probably is not as severe as the example I just shared, but I strongly believe that an adult’s response to oppositional, defiant and noncompliant behavior has a great deal to do with those behaviors happening again and again. It’s not the sort of payoff you can reach out and touch, but it’s a powerful, intangible payoff that a youngster can grow to prefer. Why? Howard Glasser and Jennifer Easley say it well in their book, Transforming the Difficult Child:
“The energy, reactivity and animation that we radiate when we are pleased is relatively flat compared to our verbal and nonverbal responses to behaviors that cause us displeasure, frustration or anger.”
How Do We Change Things?
1. Refuse to become overly upset. If there is a consequence to be applied, apply it, then physically remove yourself from the situation, if you can. Youngsters don’t like consequences. If you hang around, they just might go through their entire script of unhappiness.
2. Work out all the consequences in advance, and write them down. Discuss with your child what would be reasonable consequences for forgotten tasks or inappropriate behaviors. When they are not in a defensive mood or “on-the-spot,” many youngsters will come up with excellent consequences as you consider what would be reasonable and fair for a given situation. (These are called “elicited” consequences. If the youngster helps you with the consequences, he’ll be less likely to say they are unfair when you later have to apply them.) Type all this up on the computer (better yet, let the youngster do it). Go over it again with them, and give them a copy of the signed document. Later, instead of telling them the consequence for a behavior, produce the list, and ask them to read it to you. There’s something about a child or teen stating a consequence in their own voice that takes a lot of the fight out of the situation.
3. Attend to your child when he’s NOT in trouble. Although this makes a lot of sense on the surface, we live in a busy, busy world. When our kids create trouble, we have to attend to it, but it’s easy to let relationships slide when there’s no emergency. Make a commitment just to be with the youngster for a few moments on a regular basis. A parent’s physical presence, especially in those few moments before their child goes to sleep, is a powerful and positive thing.
4. Consider ways to provide additional empowerment. For some kids, getting adults worked up into a full lather appeals to them because they feel that’s the only way they have any power at all. A simple way to increase empowerment is to offer more choices, where appropriate. In assigning chores, for instance, give them five tasks and explain they can give two of them back to you if they do three of them by a certain time.
5. Learn to live more calmly in an imperfect world. This one certainly applies to all of us. I have to work on it every day.
Although a nationally recognized child and adolescent psychologist, Dr. James Sutton deeply values his first calling as a teacher. Today he is in demand for his expertise on emotionally and behaviorally troubled youngsters and his skill for speaking, writing and training on this subject. He is the founder and host of The Changing Behavior Network, a radio-style podcast and blog promoting happy and healthy youngsters and families. http://thechangingbehaviornetwork.com
Photo credit: horrigans / Foter / CC BY-NC