Making the Shift Towards Understanding Opposition

Adrienne Bashista

How many times have you thought these things yourself about your child?

  • He’s doing it to get attention.
  • She’s trying to make me mad.
  • He’s ignoring me.
  • She’s being disrespectful, defiant and oppositional.
  • He craves negative attention.
  • She is being a jerk on purpose.

True confession: I’ve thought all those things about my own child. Hundreds of times. Probably more. And for a long time I believed them to be true. It seemed as if the behaviors my son exhibited were somehow intentional. 

I’m not talking about the wiggly hyperactivity, or the instant switches in attention span, or the disorganization and the mess that followed him around. These I understood as part of his ADHD, just one of his several co-existing diagnoses. I’m talking about the other things he did: the defiant, disrespectful and rude reactions to simple requests, or the times I’d ask the same thing over and over again and he still wouldn’t do as I asked.

It hurt my feelings. I questioned my parenting skills. When I tried and tried to get him to stop doing all those things, every attempt made it worse. My husband and I started to research therapeutic schools and residential treatment programs — for a child who was not yet 10 years old!

But then things got better. Not overnight, and certainly not without effort. But much, much better.

Here’s the 2 Step Process that worked for us:

1. I educated myself about what was going on.

I started learning about my son’s primary diagnosis, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). FASD is brain damage that happens when a woman drinks alcohol when pregnant. Most people with FASD look “typical” and have average IQs. But almost all exhibit behavioral characteristics as a result of their brain’s slow processing speed. They may be quick to react, but slow to understand a question that’s posed of them. They may have trouble with transitions. They may find it difficult to do more than one thing at a time. They might get overstimulated easily. They may develop compensatory behaviors to buy them the time they need to process what’s going on (like automatically saying “no” to what’s asked of them, even if it’s something they should be able to do).

I started seeing my son’s behaviors as a product of his brain function, rather than something he was doing on purpose. I simply switched from assigning “intent” to his behaviors, to removing any sense that he had a motive. It made a huge difference in my attitude and my reactions. My feelings were no longer part of the equation.

Now, I realize most of you reading this don’t have a child with FASD. But you do have a child or children with other brain-based difficulties, including ADHD. It’s not as severe as FASD, and it’s not caused by the same thing as FASD, but the impact is similar, and the same technique is supremely useful for dealing with oppositional behaviors, no matter what the diagnosis.

2. I stopped giving consequences for unwelcome behaviors.

I know what you’re thinking: but how will he learn NOT to do it if you don’t punish him? If you don’t teach him what’s right?

You wouldn’t punish a sight-impaired person for stumbling over a chair he or she didn’t know about, would you? That would be unreasonable, and wouldn’t help matters, anyway. I use the same reasoning for behaviors caused by my son’s brain dysfunction.

For example, if I ask my son to turn off the television and he doesn’t do it, I turn off the television for him. He might become angry and swear at me, but I do not react. No punishment. In the best scenario, I make no comment about the name-calling.

Guess what? He already knows that he shouldn’t get angry and call names. Sometimes, he just can’t help himself. So punishment on top of the anger and name-calling just escalates things. It puts us all on edge, and doesn’t allow him to calm and settle. Calming and settling means better brain function. And for him, better brain function translates into less anger and less reactivity. So next time I ask him to turn off the television, he may be able to do it by himself.

Things are Better at Home

Since I started learning about my son’s brain (dis)abilities and understanding how brain function impacts behavior, I changed my approach to my son’s defiant behaviors. The results? My child’s behavior has taken a remarkable turn for the better!

Things aren’t perfect. He still gets angry. He still calls names and uses more swear words than an 11-year-old should. But there’s been a huge improvement in the mood in our house — and my own state of mind.

Here are some tricks to help you shift YOUR thinking and set your child up for success:

Old thought: He’s ignoring me. New Thought: My child can only do one thing at a time.

Old thought: He’s being defiant. New Thought: He is in reactive mode.

Old thought: He’s just trying to get attention. New Thought: He needs help and lacks the skills to communicate it effectively.

Old thought: He’s acting badly. New Thought: His behaviors are clues to a poor fit between what I want him to do and what he can actually do.

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