It’s the question every parent has to face sooner or later. Maybe you’re a strict by-the-book parent, maybe you’re loose and carefree and like your children to be the same, and maybe you’re somewhere in the middle (which is probably for the best). But wherever you may fall on the parenting spectrum and however “good” your kid may be, sooner or later they’re bound to disobey — and once they start, it can be hard to stop them from doing the exact opposite of what you say.
Tell them to stay put, they off running everywhere. Tell them to eat something, and they refuse. Tell them to be quiet, and they’ll scream even louder than before. Why does this happen and, more important, what can and should you do about it?
Reasons for Disobedience
One of the most maddening things about this question is that there are many potential reasons why children may disobey you and do the opposite of what you’re saying. As such, one of the most important steps you can take to addressing this problem is learning a bit more about some of the most common of these reasons and what’s at the heart of the disobedience in each case.
Part of what makes this form of children doing the opposite so difficult to deal with is that you, of course, don’t want to squelch your child’s naturally curious mindset. That is a vital asset and can serve the well as they develop into intelligent imaginative children and adults. Sometimes coloring outside the lines or thinking outside the box is what’s needed to break ground and achieve one’s full potential. On the other hand, a total lack of boundaries can make it hard for your child to focus their creative or intellectual energies, thus squandering that gift of curiosity and making them unruly as they disobey and do the opposite of what you or anyone giving instructions says.
For very young children, everything is new, including objections to their actions. While an adult or even a child a few years younger may “know better,” they may still be figuring everything out.
This confusion can also be helped along by the fact that very young children often lack the same ability to associate words with actions as fully as adults. For example, if you tell a very young child “Don’t eat that,” they may not have a full idea of “Don’t” yet, while they almost certainly have a more fully formed idea of what “eating” is. Eating is a lot more visceral and instinctual than being told not to do something, let alone the clarity of why eating something may be “bad.”
It is easier for young children in particular to imagine and respond to pictorial things than abstract concepts, including being told not to do things. In addition, the pleasure principle is strong in children and learning not to satiate immediate desires is something that takes time to learn. Children don’t know about calories, rotting teeth, or diabetes, so being told “Don’t eat chocolate” may prove confusing to them when all they mentally understand of chocolate so far is that it tastes good and is good to eat – so why not eat it? For children, such commands are a mystery and it takes time to learn that kind of thinking.
Be patient with them, but be firm as well. When possible, try and acknowledge the fact that they’re probably wondering why they can’t do something “right now” and thus want to do the opposite of your command. Why can’t they eat chocolate right now? Because you’re busy doing something else but maybe when you finish some tasks, they can have more chocolate.
In any case, giving clear explanations and trying to address their confusion is more constructive than yelling at children. Children can recognize an angry or threatening tone on an emotional level long before they understand verbal commands and abstract ideas. They may not know why exactly you’re angry at them or what they can or should do, but they’ll definitely know that you’re angry and threatening them, which will not only heighten their confusion but could leave them with psychological damage.
3. Lack of a Clear Bond
“You’re Not My Real Mom/Dad!” That kind of cliché yet hurtful refrain is often associated with stepchildren rebelling against new stepparents. Such a situation is understandably tense, in part because such a new relationship in the place of an older established bond with a previous parent can be tenuous.
However, even if you don’t have to deal with stepchild/parent drama, children doing the opposite of what you say can be a sign that you don’t have a strong enough bond with them for them to respect you or your instructions. If you aren’t around very often, for example, your child may feel distant from you. If you don’t talk to them very often, they may not care when you do decide to speak.
4. Moodiness and Mood Swings
It should come as no surprise to any parent that children can experience severe mood swings. This is something that all children go through in some form or another and can last well into one’s teenage years as well. In both cases, these are often just growing pains and changes in hormones as the body grows and adapts to the changes it is undergoing.
At the same time, however, there are certainly cases where those mood swings are less benign. There’s a big difference between hormonal moody behavior and an “I Want It Now”-style moody temper tantrum a la Veruca Salt. Giving into these demands can raise a spoiled brat (again, see Veruca) so while empathy is called for, so is firmness and standing your ground as the parent in charge here.
5. Attention-Seeking Behavior
The same holds true with attention-seeking behavior. The more you give into screaming, the more your child will learn that it’s effective and do it again. Hard as it may be, you have to ignore this kind of behavior. Let your child embarrass and tire themselves out, and they’ll learn it’s not worth it.
6. Oppositional Defiant Disorder
Some children are so oppositional that it affects their development and lives. Oppositional Defiant Disorder covers cases such as these, and is identifiable from normal temper tantrums and obstinate behavior by the sheer frequency and severity of their outbursts. In these cases, therapy and professional help may be beneficial for you and your child.
7. Power Plays
“No” is one of the earliest words that children learn, which means that one reason why they employ it so often is simply because they think they can. It’s a simple, easy word that they know and understand, and it gives them a sense of power to say “No” when they can’t comprehend more complex concepts.
So what is a frustrated parent to do in such a situation? For one thing, you might try to avoid situations where choices are reduced to simple “Yes” and “No” answers. Not only does that help avoid the annoyingness of a child simply responding “No” and doing the opposite of what you say, but it also opens the door to dialogue with the child. Your first inclination may be annoyance at the idea of having to “engage in dialogue” with a child, but given the fact that simply shouting for them to “Do” something and getting “No” in return is equally annoying and nowhere near as constructive, it’s worth a try.
For example, you might give your child choices where one “choice” is clearly skewed towards the way you want them to answer and will benefit them as well (ex. a future reward for good behavior now). You could also try positioning them as your “helper.” Children are new to ideas of power and control (that’s one reason why “No” is so easy and fun for them to use) so making them your “helper” can make them feel important while stopping them from doing the opposite of everything you say.
Be Patient: Wait Them Out!
Sometimes the best strategy is simply to let your child make and learn from their own mistakes. There is only so many times you can ask them to eat their vegetables and have them do the opposite by refusing. If they do this enough times, simply wait them out and, if necessary, end meal time. Once they see that you aren’t going to cave in, they may feel more inclined to actually listen and appreciate the food they have.
On the other hand, if you constantly cave to their demands and replace the food they have with treats, why wouldn’t they do the opposite of what you ask in this and other situations? You’ve shown them that their obstinacy will get them what they want, so why wouldn’t they follow that pattern in the future?
While no parent likes having to deal with a child’s annoyingly oppositional and obstinate behavior, it’s often an inevitable part of a child’s development. It doesn’t make them a “bad kid,” but simply a kid. Learning how to respond to this behavior can help your child move through it and ensure that they develop more positively.