Editorials for Clinical Practice
CHADIS Co-Founder and President, Dr. Barbara Howard is a regular contributor to the Behavioral Consult column of Pediatric News and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Dr. Howard is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician trained by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton at Harvard University. She is a national speaker on child behavior problems and is a past president of the Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. She was a contributing author for Bright Futures™, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Primary Care (DSM-PC) and Bright Futures in Practice: Mental Health and has served on national committees of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Too old for time out. Now what? Oppositional behavior in school-age children
The best plan for oppositional behavior in a school-aged child is prevention at younger ages! But here is the family coming to see us, struggling to get cooperation, and often increasingly embarrassed and angry.
Sometimes the dynamics leading to this behavior seem obvious: the parent tells their child to put away the toys they have pulled out in your waiting room, is ignored, and cleans them up themselves without a word. The child smugly fiddles with their cell phone, reinforced by removal of the task. Even without a defined reward, this still constitutes positive reinforcement as it increases the likelihood of the same future behavior of ignoring a parental directive.
Preventing this “mild” oppositionality at a younger age may come from the parent jollying the child through the clean up, participating with them in a game-like way counting the toys or making it a race, or even using only one request before grasping the child’s hand and “assisting” them in picking up a toy while praising cooperation but these tactics become less appropriate with age.
Other factors that may have led to school-aged child refusal include yelling at them, shaming, comparing them with a more compliant sibling, threatening a punishment that is never carried out, or deferring a consequence to the other caregiver. Of course, no child would want to please a caregiver with this kind of interaction by obeying them. By school age, children have a greater need to exert autonomy and avoid humiliation and may do this by getting angry, talking back, insulting the parent, or leaving the scene. This is especially likely if peers or siblings are present and the child wants to show that they can’t be bossed around.
So what can we advise when habits of refusal have already been established? Keeping in mind the major school-age psychosocial tasks of developing autonomy and self-esteem, the parent may need to overdo opportunities for this child to have choices and experience respect. When the child has a generalized oppositional stance, the parent may feel that it is difficult to identify opportunities to do this. The key, in that case, is to set up cooperation and focus on small positive or neutral bits of behavior to reinforce. For example, requesting that the child do something they want to do anyway, such as come for a snack or turn on the TV, can be met with a brief but sincere “thanks” or “thanks for hopping on that.”
Sarcasm is counterproductive at all times, as it is insulting. Asking the child’s opinion regularly then listening and reflecting, rephrasing what they said, and even checking to see if the parent “got it right” do not require that the parent agrees. Any disagreement that the parent feels is needed can be withheld for a few minutes to indicate respect for the child’s opinion. For a child to learn to make “good choices” of behavior comes also from noticing how “not so good choices” worked out, a reflection the parent can try to elicit nonjudgmentally. Rebuilding the relationship can be done over time with respectful communication and assuring daily times of showing interest in the child, fooling around together, or playing a game.
While giving more choices respects autonomy, the options must really be acceptable to the parent. They may allow the child to choose some aspects of family activities – a skate park, or a certain eatery, or parts of the outing could be optional. Sometimes the order of upcoming events can provide a choice even if attendance is required. Sometimes the dress code can be flexible (flip flops, okay sure!), or a friend (preferably a well-behaved one!) could be invited along.
Pitfalls to avoid
Avoiding humiliation may be obvious, such as not complementing a singing performance or insistence on the child self-reporting bad behavior. For some families the parents may need to avoid their own embarrassing habits of “bad jokes” or outlandish clothes as a reasonable accommodation. Other kinds of humiliation to avoid may be specific to the child’s weaknesses, such as insisting that a clumsy child play on a team or a shy child speak to strangers. While it may be valuable for the child to work on those weaknesses, this should be done in private, if possible, or even with a coach who is not the parent if the relationship is strained.
Sensitive or anxious children are more prone to embarrassment and may then react with oppositional responses. They often do better with notice or coaching for upcoming events that may be in a category that has upset them in the past; for example, a visit from an overly affectionate aunt. Children may gain respect for their parents by being given a task that serves as an early escape route for these situations (Oh, would you please run out to the car and get my sweater?) although progressively tolerating undesirable situations is also important practice. A kindly debrief later with praise for progress also builds skills.
Reinforcing behaviors and revisiting consequences
Gaining more privileges as the reward for cooperation and responsibility is the natural sequence with development but oppositional children may need a chart, ideally negotiated as a family, to be clear about this cause-effect plan and what is expected for them to earn more freedom. Another benefit of a chart is that it is an objective translator of rules that can literally be pointed to rather than a parent-child conversation that could become an argument. Parents need to make expectations clear and follow through on promised increased privileges or consequences to be seen as fair. Having regular routines for chores, not just for activities, reduces refusal as well. Such concrete steps are especially important for children with ADHD who are often easily distracted from parental requests even if they meant to follow them and have a weak sense of timing. I have seen some wise parents give their distracted or impulsive child “a minute to decide if that is their final choice” before levying a consequence.
“When-then” statements can be useful both for coaching appropriate behavior in advance, debriefs, and alerting to consequences when needed. For example: “When you ask your aunt a question right away when you meet her then her hugs will be shorter” is coaching. “When you come home an hour late then you will have an hour earlier curfew the next week” is a graded consequence.
The cell phone issue
I can’t omit mentioning the specific situation of a child on a cell phone or tablet ignoring or refusing requests. While having possession of such a device may be seen as a safety measure (How can he reach me?) and social coinage (All my friends have one!), they are distracting and addicting and now the most common reason I see for oppositional interactions. This has been discussed elsewhere, so let me just say that a device is a privilege and should not “belong” to a child. Delaying the age of “lending” the device, establishing rules for use to certain situations and durations, and removing it for defined periods if it is interfering with cooperation are basic principles, even though enforcing them may result in upsets. Parents may need to change their own device use to be able to address oppositional behavior in their child.
Strategies for building better behavior
How important is it for the parent to verbalize what they are doing to instruct or accommodate their school-aged child? In the presence of others, the fewer words highlighting that an intervention is underway the better. Sometimes having a secret signal to prompt or praise, even a wink, can be helpful without being humiliating. These should be decided on together in private and practiced at first in nonstressful situations. Comments of appreciation or praise are appropriate then and are often reinforcing but should be very specific; for example, “I’m glad you got ready right away when it was time to leave” rather than general or backwards praise “Ready on time today, huh?” For some, especially younger or special-needs children, marks, points, tickets, tokens, or little prizes may be beneficial reinforcers, especially when trying to establish new patterns of interaction. Praise should fairly quickly replace more concrete rewards, though, by weaning, first by intermittent delivery or spacing further apart.
When counseling about oppositional behavior in school-aged children eliciting specific examples is key to determining whether parents are overly rigid or lax, have realistic expectations for their individual child’s temperament, skills, and past experiences (for example, traumas). As Ross Greene, Ph.D., points out,1 assisting families in understanding the gaps in skills that bring out opposition and categorizing behaviors into the rare “must-do’s,” and the many “just drop it’s,” in order to focus on understanding and building strategies and cooperation for situations that are important but not critical (Plan B) may require regular counseling by a mental health professional to help a child develop adaptive behavior and facilitate family harmony.
1. Greene RW. The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children, Sixth Edition, (New York: Harper Paperbacks, 2021).