Opposition and defiance are behaviours that all young people will engage in. They select the behaviour they feel might be best or quickest to get what they want, to meet their needs. Those who engage in these behaviours more often or longer are designated as having a “disorder”. I’ve always been somewhat bemused by such labelling as it certainly doesn’t seem to me that it helps.
Here then are a few brief ideas on managing young folk who choose to engage in opposition and/or defiance behaviours with a higher than average frequency, intensity and duration than others.
Always keep in mind that a behaviour that can be learnt can be unlearnt!
Avoid arguments – Some youth who are defiant find arguments rewarding. They have your focused attention. They’re hoping to exercise control by generating an emotional reaction in you. Try suggesting they present their views for a few minutes during which you listen and don’t interrupt. Once they’ve stated their case you can respond by saying they’ve had their turn, you’ve listened and heard and now you’d like to respond – with the same courtesy of not being interrupted. Agree that it’s very likely anyone who felt too high a degree of frustration might choose opposition or defiance to gain attention and to take some control. However, the question they might benefit from pondering is: “Does this behaviour, of trying to avoid emotional and psychological discomfort, work to help them be/become the person they’d like to be, to live the life they’d like to be living?” Ask are they willing to consider an alternative that may help? If they agree to co-operate (which may best be left until they cool down) ask do they want help brain-storming this?
Encourage small steps in the right direction – Whilst realistically not expecting the young person to “change overnight”, encourage small steps in the direction of contextually appropriate and acceptable behaviours. Encourage rather than praise. (See: http://www.earlychildhoodnews.com/earlychildhood/article_view.aspx?ArticleID=678
for an explanation of the important difference). Especially encourage those behaviours or statements that indicate a willingness to delay instant gratification and to consider others. Also encourage statements or behaviours that indicate the young person is expressing and/or actualising consistent pro-social values.
Deflect impulsive rage – A young person exhibiting oppositional defiant behaviour will often be impulsive and, if thwarted in their intention, can be aggressive. Where possible, deflect rage by absenting yourself where possible or suggesting an alternative response. Regular reference to a short statement summarising an anger control acronym or aphorism – e.g. “Stop, Think, Do” may assist. Reference to, for example, the “I did it without thinking” story or the “I just have a bad temper” story and reinforcing various strategies to defuse the power of “The Mind”, can help. A “forced choice” may assist – e.g. After asking “Is this helping you be the person you want to be and live the life you’d like to live or not?”, ask: “You can either calm down and move in a positive direction or continue in a direction that isn’t helping you. Your choice”
Pick your Battles – Avoid head-to-head clashes. Speak calmly but decisively. Don’t try to out-stare the young person. Look away. Where possible, allow time for the anger to dissipate. Explain that anger can be a legitimate emotion but translating it into aggression normally doesn’t help.
Try to Align with Them – If it seems likely to assist, state that as you’re sharing the same life space at the moment you might as well try to be on-side, on the same team. Point out that we all feel frustrated and angry at times and that the most effective way to convey our feelings to another is in a calmer, considered fashion. “My Mind is quite similar to yours in many ways. We all have a Mind that throws out regular lines to hook us. We can take the hook and get caught or … we can thank The Mind, use an unhooking strategy and find we can lead a better life”. Model an appropriate response – e.g. “When you (describe briefly the other’s behaviour), I feel (insert the emotion) and I’d rather you (insert a reasonable alternative)”.
Keep in mind that beneath the oppositional defiant behaviour they usually would like to act more effectively – The youth exhibiting oppositional defiant behaviour may not want to “lose face” by backing down or apologising. Consider that they are likely to be avoiding you seeing their vulnerable side and, like all of us, don’t want to be seen as summed up by us as “weak”, “wrong”, “foolish”, “hot-headed” etc.
Consistently point out that there is an internal locus of control and choice is a reality – even if sometimes difficult to see. Be firm but fair. Be as consistent as humanly possible. Try to offer them one-on-one quality time occasionally when they aren’t under the spotlight to connect with shared values and/or demonstrate that you respect their values and aspirations.