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Why your child may seem difficult, and some things you can do about it

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Posted: Tuesday, January 29, 2013 12:00 am

"No! I won't, and you can't make me!" That's the sound of the so-called "rebellious child," heard in many homes.

It was the most common condition I witnessed among children during my many years as a psychotherapist.

Here are some characteristics, followed by a few suggestions for parents and teachers:

1. These are not "rebellious" but "oppositional" children. True rebels are willing to take responsibility for the consequences of their behavior. Oppositional kids are not. They want to do whatever they please, but want someone else to take responsibility when their actions go astray.

2. Power means polarizing. Most people use a personality style to gain power over their environment. Some feel powerful when they follow the rules. Others have a history of compliant failure and find more strength in defiant behavior. They see themselves as unable to live up to someone else's expectations.

3. Do it my way. Oppositional children have difficulty with authority and want to make decisions about issues affecting their lives.

4. Modeling oppositional behavior. Often a parent or sibling, either living inside or outside the home, exhibits these characteristics. Children can learn by watching and imitating a personality style that is successful in achieving immediate wants and needs. They don't consider long-term, negative consequences.

So, how does a parent or teacher deal with an oppositional child? The simplest answer is to teach responsible decision-making.

Here are some examples:

1. Set the limits. Let children make choices within your limits. Have them assume full responsibility for their decisions.

For instance, how about a kid who insists on having his promised ice cream cone at an inappropriate time? The parent should avoid saying "no" because this will automatically trigger an argument or a temper tantrum. Instead, mom or dad might answer something like this: "You can have your cone after dinner, tomorrow after lunch, or none at all. Which do you prefer?"

Hold firm with your limits and do not argue.

2. Natural consequences. Natural consequences are the results of behavior that a parent does not control.

If a child is thinking about breaking the law, the adult might respond with: "If you insist on committing that criminal act and are arrested, you will be responsible for whatever happens. I will not come and get you out of juvenile hall. You are on your own to deal with the choices you have made." (Remember "oppositional" characteristic No. 1 as stated earlier.)

Again, parents must stand firm on what they say.

3. Controlled consequences. These are results of a child's behavior arranged by parents.

"You may use your car on weekends but not during school nights. If you decide to drive on a school night, I'll respect your decision. I'll understand that you must have a very important reason to do so. However, if you do choose that route, there will be no use of the car at all. I hope you make a decision that's best for you."

Parents who are resistive to non-argumentative techniques often are fearful to try something off-script. They are afraid of losing the illusion of control and that the child will engage in behavior which could lead to serious harm.

One does have to use the "reasonable person" standard when using this methodology. However, in the long run, enabling defiant attitudes usually lead to far more dangerous and disastrous outcomes.

As a word of caution, I've only presented a partial picture of the oppositional child. The objective here is to give readers some insight into this commonly found personality style.

One should not go off "half-cocked" based on these described techniques without considering the consultation of a competent mental health professional. A therapist can help rule out more serious psychopathology, provide guidance and create modification plans that are specifically tailored to your unique situation.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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