When you feel intensely that what you are being asked to do is not in your (or the group’s) best interests you are likely to oppose it. Why wouldn’t you? It is a basic survival instinct. In our relatively free and liberal Western world there isn’t actually that much day-to-day stuff that we need to oppose as an adult so we don’t often think about having to do it. In the immortal line of Soup Dragons (or, according to my son, the better Dua Lipa version) : ‘I’m free, to do whatever I want, any old time’. But maybe if you were told you couldn’t leave the country without permission from a blood relative, or have to live with an abuser, or can’t walk in the countryside, or had to accept fracking next door, then you’d oppose. You’d campaign, lobby with all your voice (which may or may not be loud enough), and be upset if you failed.
Children oppose. It is a natural thing to see a boundary and want to see what happens on the other side when you are growing up. Some boundaries appear to be pretty arbitrary cultural confections informed by the prevailing view of what is good manners, like waiting for the family to get to the table before you start eating your dinner. Don’t think my son’s ever mastered that one. Or holding a door open for someone, or queuing, or saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. And what are you going to do about it when breaking that kind of boundary doesn’t really matter that much in the grand scheme of things? Let’s face it, the consequence for bad manners is always going to be worse than the offence itself, and ratcheting up the reaction definitely isn’t the recommended therapeutic parenting method, all you are going to get is escalation and retaliation. What you are asked to do is remind them and provide a good example. Apparently it works.
So far, so typical parenting. But what if those boundaries are there for their own safety? Rules such as ‘watch out, that pan is hot, don’t put your hands on it’, ‘don’t jump off the climbing frame from there’, ‘don’t tip back on your chair’? Explicit commands that have a high chance of injury if disobeyed. My son has disobeyed all of those, by the way, and more. Is it simply the way that you are expressing those boundaries? Putting the word ‘stop’ or ‘don’t’ is a challenge to their freedom after all. They want to be free to do whatever they want too. The alternative is to explain ways to be safe, but that explanation alone is never going to suffice for a child who can’t trust an adult and needs to be in control. So the explanation is going to be tested. And maybe they hurt themselves, and maybe they don’t. Neither outcome, in their mind, is a resounding verification of their parent’s rule. So they try to test it again. My son has now burnt himself 5 times and cracked his head when falling off a chair twice. Even with us making every attempt to ‘son-proof’ his environment.
Why are they not learning? Well they are learning, of course they are. But those circuits that were so abused by their birth parents early in life are really not firing. Cause and effect are only weakly linked, and the dopamine hit of adrenaline and fun are so much stronger. My son has often said that he just can’t help doing something dangerous, even though he knows it is wrong. Which obviously as a parent isn’t exactly comforting. Social workers suggest that natural consequences, such as breaking a toy or even hurting yourself (mildly, obviously!), are the best way of teaching kids to be safe, even those with problems of oppositional behaviour. Experience suggests otherwise, but it will never be a quick thing anyway so I am keeping my fingers crossed that he will pick it up before he does something permanent to himself.
Why would a child be so oppositional? Even when it is clearly not in their best interests? That definitely isn’t a basic survival instinct. It all ultimately comes down to control. When you grow up with no control in your early life, you’ll experience extreme anxiety. You have a need to make sure every part of your environment is predictable, even the people and society rules around you. And how do you go about making sure people and society are predictable? By constantly trying to mould them to your own view and fit in with what you want. Because that is how you feel safe, subconsciously at least. You can’t adapt to what other people want because that is an unknown factor. It might change any moment. It starts to feel like other people’s rule and expectations are against your own survival instinct; it’s just all messed up in your head.
This only gets worse the more anxious they get, perhaps in a new situation, or just moving from one environment to another — a transition. Once they feel anxious they have no way to calm down beyond trying to control the situation, including the people.
As usual there is no simple, pat way to help a child with this. But of course you have to because a controlling, oppositional child is one thing, an adult is quite another. Demonstrating that you won’t be controlled by them when it isn’t in either of your best interests is one way. For instance if the oppositional behaviour is to refuse to do homework when you suggest that it is time to do it then simply allow them to miss it and let school deal with it. But be clear that you won’t cover for them by telling school that they’d made an effort (or whatever that school expects parents to do when homework isn’t complete). Explain to them that you won’t be complicit. They might still refuse to do it but you’ve demonstrated that they can’t control everything in their environment, but still the effect (a bollocking at school probably), will always be the same, so they don’t need that level of control.
That’s probably a bit of a poor example (I’m going to try and touch on schools in a later post) as schools are quite often inconsistent, but hopefully you get the drift. Otherwise a lot of it is about picking battles. As an adopter you might find that you pick a lot fewer than birth parents. That’s OK. Constant confrontation is just going to worsen the relationship. Just pick the ones you feel really strongly about. And if you have a lot you feel strongly about, start to unpick why that might be and do a bit of introspection. You’ll probably find you don’t need to fight the opposition as much as you think. Just always try to be consistent in what your boundaries are, even if they are deliberately never held to by your kids. Go for a day out somewhere if they do manage to keep to them. Just so they know that you’re pleased. Apparently, it works.