My child argues with nearly every instruction I give. Why is he so oppositional and what can I do to make him comply?

Dealing with a child whose first response to your requests is a knee-jerk “no” can be incredibly frustrating. Doesn’t he realize that if you can’t get him to school on time you’ll be late for work, possibly jeopardizing your ability to buy him that over-priced Lego creation he is demanding? Doesn’t he realize that if he just sat down and did his homework when you asked him to he would avoid the painful two-hour argument, wasting time in which he could have been enjoying those darn Legos?

Oppositional behavior has many possible causes, but typically comes down to a need to over-control the environment to compensate for feeling a loss of control in some aspect of the child’s life. This feeling of a loss of control can be due to struggles with ADHD, anxiety, learning disabilities and other stressors. Additionally, these behaviors are reinforced through the arguments they engender. Negative attention is attention. Also, while you are arguing with your child, he is in control. You never win a power struggle with a child, even if they eventually give in. A negative pattern is becoming established in which they have a sense of control and are receiving your attention.

So what is a parent to do? How do you make your child follow your rules? The first thing to think about is your approach. A truly oppositional child can never be forced to do anything. Any attempt to make him bend to your will will make him more entrenched in his position, strengthening the desire to control the interaction. If your child does not want to do a certain task think about its importance in the scheme of things. If it is not as serious as needing him to get out of the street because a car is coming, try to give your child some appropriate power. For example, if your child is refusing to do his homework let him know that that is ok. What, you scream in horror, how can that be ok?! Well, in the scheme of things it is ok. It is his choice. Of course that does mean he will have to face the consequences of his choice, including not getting on the computer until his work is done and having to face the consequences at school the next day. Basically by giving your child a choice you are avoiding a fight and putting your child’s need to control in the appropriate context. You are telling him, yes, you do have control of your actions, you just need to be ready to face the consequences. Part of the trick is finding natural consequences for his choices that are immediate and proportional. This is not an immediate fix and often children will up the ante and test to see if you are serious. The more often you are able to respond dispassionately by putting the choice for behaviors back on the child, the sooner opposition loses its power and becomes a less attractive course of action. In other words, just get out of the way and let your child choose. Eventually he will make the right choice.