Oppositional Behavior

Flip the Switch on the Power Struggle

Argumentative kids aren’t looking to take away a parent’s or teacher’s power. They just want some of their own. How to best manage an oppositional child with ADHD.

power struggle

The child who is motivated by power is among the most feared and misunderstood children in our classrooms and homes. These children cause great anxiety, panic, and dread in parents and teachers.

Adults feel that, when a child desires power, he wants to take some of our power. Because we do not want to lose control of the classroom or home, we embroil ourselves in power struggles born of our refusal to surrender our power. Adults need to understand that the child does not want our power. He merely wants some of his own.

Much of what I learned about dealing with children with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) and children who need power, I learned from a young girl named Michelle. She was a wonderful kid, but was extremely troubled, argumentative, and combative. She had marked difficulty with peers and would constantly challenge the authority of the adults in her life. She challenged every decision or direction given to her by an adult.

I was tremendously frustrated as her teacher and sought the counsel of my mentor. As always, he provided me with invaluable and profound advice. “Rick,” he began, “you need not attend every battle to which you are invited.”

Choose Your Battles

Wise counsel. I decided to pick my fights and to confront Michelle only on issues that were significant and crucial. Initially, I lost some battles that I could have won, but I began to win the war.

[Take This Self-Test: Could Your Child Have Oppositional Defiant Disorder?]

Beyond this, I began to develop and use strategies designed to give Michelle power. I came to recognize that power and control were significant needs of hers, and she wouldn’t be able to learn effectively until those needs were met.

One Friday afternoon, as students began to file out of the room at the end of the day, I asked Michelle to come to my desk. I told her that we were going to start studying New Zealand on Monday, and asked whether there was anything she would like to learn about it. She wondered if lambs were hurt when their wool was sheared, and is the southern part of New Zealand colder than the northern part?

When class began on Monday, I said, “Well, gang, Michelle gave me some pretty difficult assignments to research over the weekend. Michelle, why don’t you sit up front here, so that you can help me with some of this?” She joined me and participated eagerly in the week’s activities and discussions.

This strategy can be modified for use at home. Seek the power child’s advice or input on family issues, and whenever possible, follow his advice: “Your cousins are coming to dinner tomorrow. What meal do you think we should serve?” Nothing makes a person feel more powerful than to have his opinion solicited — and followed.

[Free 2-Week Guide to Ending Defiant Behavior]

Offer Minor Choices

Another strategy that worked effectively with Michelle is known as the “minor-choice technique.” If I wanted her to write a 200-word essay on Spain, I recognized that a power struggle was nearly inevitable. I prevented the skirmish by embedding a small choice within the assignment: “I want you to write a 200-word essay on Spain. Would you prefer to use white or yellow paper?” Or “Would you prefer to write at your desk or go to the library table?”

This strategy can be modified for the home or playing field: “Matty, you have to clean up the mess that you left in the driveway. Do you want to do it now or after supper?” The adult should clearly state her instruction and follow that immediately with a two- or three-option choice that the child can make in the completion of the instruction. When the child chooses, he should be commended for making an appropriate and timely decision.

Give Responsibility

I seldom asked Michelle to run errands, attempt extra-credit assignments, or do independent work. I believed she was irresponsible and that she would handle these duties poorly. My mentor reminded me, “In order for a child to learn how to handle responsibility, she must be given responsibility to handle.” I began to give Michelle tasks to complete regularly. I was heartened by her response.

Use Proximity Control

This means sitting or standing near the child at times when his behavior becomes a problem (transitions or tests). Do not use proximity in a threatening or intimidating way. Stand near the child and you will often find that your closeness will have a calming effect on him.

Wipe the Slate Clean

Power children may view interactions as threatening, even if no threat was intended. They bear grudges, and they assume that adults do as well. Because the child has difficulty wiping the slate clean after an altercation, the adult must do it. Whenever I had difficulty with Michelle during the day, I’d seek her out before I left work and give her a smile and a kind word. By doing this, I communicated, “We had our battle, but that is behind us.” This prevented her anger from festering and contributed greatly to our relationship.

[11 Tips for No-Shout, No-Tears Discipline]

From The Motivation Breakthrough: 6 Secrets to Turning On the Tuned-Out Child, by RICHARD LAVOIE. Copyright 2007. Reprinted by permission of Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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