The Oppositional Child

Dear Shira,

We have three children, bli ayin hara, from ages 7 down to age 3. My main concern right now is with my seven-year-old daughter. She constantly is testing me, and questioning my authority. If I ask her to do something, she’ll immediately make a comment, or ask a nonsensical question, about my request. She may answer, “My friends aren’t asked to do that,” or ask why it has to be done, at all.

We’ve attempted using charts to help motivate positive behavior, but they don’t really do much to change things. The worst part of this behavior is that my five-year-old son is picking up on her behavior, and is beginning to copy her. It’s hard for me to understand why she has to act this way. Any suggestions in how to respond to her?


A: A parent needs to expend a great amount of energy in an effort to avoid responding in a defensive manner to an oppositional child (though this is a natural initial response). Once a power struggle begins there are no victors in this battle. A child’s behavior stems from a variety of factors, a parent’s response needs to be varied, as well. One factor might be due to a child’s low frustration tolerance level, and another might be due to a child’s intense issue with sibling rivalry. A parent needs to respond according to the given situation. Much has been written on the topic of the “oppositional child,” but techniques often deal with the child’s limitations, rather than focusing on her future potential. A counselor might advise a child not to get “caught” by a teacher rather than improving the child’s future potential by working together with a teacher and classmates. However, one needs to follow the approach of Chassidic teachings, stressing the neshamah’s endless potential and how our positive thoughts can sometimes aid this process. A parent needs to believe in the child’s ability to acclimate appropriately to the world around him and reinforce it with as many positive responses as possible in a given situation.

Since an oppositional child doesn’t often accept a “straight” message well — be it a compliment or a direct request — a parent needs to speak in a more roundabout manner to achieve desirable results. One approach is to use humor in getting a point across, saying: “I think that Sara must be hiding — the Sara I know wouldn’t say such a thing to her brother.” In a similar vein, a parent can say: “Do you think that I believe you’re not a good girl? I know better than that!” or “Do you think that you can fool me into thinking that you’re not a good girl? I know that you did x and y (positive things) this morning!” Since these are not direct statements, they can be accepted much easier by oppositional children.

Some children’s responses are more tempered, and they are more responsive to adults when certain difficult issues are explained to them. Some oppositional behavior is due to a lack of understanding, when certain children are expected to “obey,” without sufficient understanding of a difficult circumstance that confronts them. Avoiding power struggles is clearly a continual challenge when working with such children.

In order for a parent to avoid power struggles a parent needs to be aware of possible issues that might emerge in a given situation and speak about it in advance to avoid unnecessary stress with the oppositional child. The stance that a parent needs to take is that of compassion and sensitivity towards his child, and not a fear of the child’s possible volatile response. A parent can sense if his child’s behavior has become a manipulative tactic, or is a cry to be understood. To prevent this pattern from becoming a negative one, a parent needs to be patient and compassionate, and not fearful and defensive.