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 for 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 anyways, 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.