The prickly kids have always been my favourite. You know, the defiant, argumentative ones. I’ve always had a special place in my heart for them, and now I’m parenting one. At the age of 6 my son was diagnosed with Oppositional Defiance Disorder, ADHD, Anxiety, and Depression. At the age of 8 he was suicidal. How is this possible you ask? Well, when you grow up being yelled by your mother for the first 8 years of your life and go to school only to get into trouble every day with teachers and students, you wonder if your life was really meant to be.
Underneath my son’s outright refusal to do anything was a deep depression that showed itself as anger and rage. He didn’t know what to do with all the big emotions he was feeling as a young boy, and the shame and fear that went with it. He experienced trauma in our home from all my yelling. I was an out of control, disregulated parent. This caused him great damage. I wish I could go back and change it, but I’m thankful I have experienced healing, which is all because of something the psychologist said to us while our son was hospitalized.
She asked me what I would do when my son would throw fits of rage. I told her I would send him to his room and would tell him he could come out when he was ready to be a “good boy”. What she said next has changed the game for us. She replied, “Oh no, you never send the hurting away from you. You bring them closer.“
I didn’t know what that meant. All I know is that when my son came home from the hospital 3 weeks later medicated and with a counsellor I thought our troubles were gone. I mean, isn’t that what the answer is to mental health issues? Medication and counselling, right? WRONG. I’ll never forget his first fit of rage. I felt such despair. I was just about to send him to his room when I remembered the psychologists words, “bring him close” so I kept him in the same room, removed all sharp objects and said to him, “Son you belong in our house. We love you. We are going to sit with you in until you are healed and whole.” And then I said something that surprised me,
“I’m not trying to change your behaviour.”
I almost choked on my words because truthfully, I WAS trying to change his behaviour. This is the exact reason why it took a YEAR for me to build trust with my son to see the positive change we’ve experienced. I had to let go of the following things that oppositional children need us to let go of in order to show us their true selves (which really isn’t oppositional at all).
Letting go of control
We don’t control our children and our students. We control no one but ourselves. “Control” is not a great connection builder. Whenever we seek to change someone else’s behaviour for our benefit and not theirs, it’s manipulation… and oppositional children can smell that BS a mile away.
Think of a time your partner or spouse sought to “control” you? How did that feel? Is that any way to build relationship? Absolutely not. Relationship is what these kids are wanting so badly but often don’t get because of their prickles. Oppositional children don’t trust adults. They’ve been hurt, rejected, and judged by adults many times over. The only way to build trust with these kids is to let go of our desire to control or change their behaviour. If they even get a scent that we are seeking to do that, they will plant their feet deeper into the ground in defiance against us.
Letting go of punishment
Punishment doesn’t work with oppositional kids. They expect it. Somewhere in their minds they have believed that all they deserve is punishment (probably because they are always in trouble) and they have set their brain to fight or flight mode to numb themselves from any punishment no matter how severe. Punishment only makes them grow stronger in their stance against you. What they are not expecting is kindness.
“It’s not opposition that is out of order, but the child’s connection to you.” Gordon Neufeld.
We live in a strange world where punishment and reward is the way we raise our children and even treat other adults. It’s not a worthy foundation in any way to build positive connection. I just heard recently of a woman who had lost her mother and was struggling with grief and depression who got written up at work and eventually fired. This “punishment” was the last thing she needed. We are constantly sending people away from us in the form of punishment instead of doing the very thing they are not expecting: bringing them close.
Behaviour is communication. It tells a story. Being too quick to punish behaviour means we miss out on what’s really going on underneath. Stop and get curious as to what’s underneath the rebellious behaviour and you’ll not only win their loyalty but you will give them the greatest gift: the gift of feeling understood and seen.
What these kids are crying for is your acceptance and love, but they don’t ever expect to receive it. Show up consistently in their lives by bringing them close for the long term leads to TRANSFORMATION. But don’t expect to see a new kid by Friday. You may not even see a new kid this year, but show up anyway. You are that child’s dopamine release they are looking for. When you light up when you see them, they don’t have to go “light up” a joint just to make it through the day.
Letting go of making them repair
Resilience is in the repair. We don’t build resilience in these kids by being the perfect teacher or parent. When there are ruptures with them (and there will be plenty), resilience comes from how we repair afterwards. This means allowing for time for emotions to calm and then approaching the child to talk about it. It is crucial for us the adults to initiate repair even if we aren’t in the wrong. When we make kids come to us to apologize, this creates shame. Approaching them doesn’t mean you are saying they were right, it means we are showing them that our connection to them is the priority. Approaching them could look like sitting next to them and saying, “That was pretty rough, eh? Could we talk about it?”
We are our kids prefrontal cortex. We are literally wiring their brains and teaching them interpersonal skills by the way we manage our own emotions and by showing them what consistent, loving repair looks like that doesn’t keep a record of wrongs.
Bringing them closer still means boundaries
As you build trust and connection with oppositional kids you will need to have firm but kind boundaries at the same time. For example, when my son would throw fits of rage, I would bring him close by keeping him in the same room and tell him how he belonged in our home and that we were willing to do anything to help him. What I ALSO would need to say after him yelling all kinds of profanities at me was, “If you speak to me that way, I will walk away.”
Boundaries teach people how to treat you. Notice I didn’t say to him, “If you speak to me that way again you will have no video games for a month!!” (well I may have tried that method a couple of times with little luck). Boundaries state what YOU will do in response to someone else’s actions, not what you want THEM to do. You only control you. That’s it.
These kids also need accountability and purpose. I don’t hear anything about values these days. When I was a kid, my grandparents and parents always spoke about persistence, showing up, loyalty, integrity. Today kids only seem to hear what they are entitled to or what they don’t have to do. When you speak life into an oppositional child and let them know what you SEE in them, as trust builds, you can also call them to accountability to greater values and purposeful activities.
Allowing oppositional children to own their decisions also becomes KEY in working with them. If they break a window, let them own that decision by following through with the consequence that follows. DON’T RESCUE THEM or let them off the hook. Be sure to add a ton of empathy with it. “Oh man, that’s rough, bud. But I know you will come up with the money somehow. I can help you figure out some ways.” In comparison to, “Well you’re gonna have to pay for that now mister!”
I am so thankful for all the oppositional children I have worked with over the years, and especially my son. They have shown me a better way to be human and how to love. Their intolerance for BS has called out my shallow attempts at connection and forced me to go deep. They have made me human. Do you see the gift they are to you as well?
Don’t miss my Brave Parents Conference coming up in Calgary, AB April 18th with Dr. Paul Day and Dr. Wayne Hammond. This conference will dig deeper into how we help our children with mental health concerns and find our bravery to face ourselves as parents.
Event link here.