What to do when all else has failed to change your kid's behavior.

Snapshots of life at home.
Sept. 17 2009 12:17 PM

Plan B

What to do when all else has failed to change your kid's behavior.

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As for reactance, recall that oppositional behavior in humans—adults, too—is predictable when an effort is made to control and it appears that the person has no choice. So taking down the pressure level in the ways we've just described will help avoid reactance. In addition, when you do ask the child to do something, how you ask can make a difference. A child is much more likely to comply when you say, in a pleasant tone of voice, "Please put on your coat; we're going to the store in a few minutes" than when you drop the "please" and say the same thing like a drill sergeant. The research consistently shows that the more commands parents give a child, the more oppositional and deviant the child's behavior, and the constant barking of orders only makes it worse by raising the child's stress level.

When you are worried about oppositional behavior, try to give a choice, even if it's trivial to you. "Please put on your red jacket or the green one; we're going to the store soon." Psychology did not invent this tactic but does confirm its efficacy. You're not asking the child to choose whether or not she wants to come along or even whether or not she wants to put on a jacket, but you're still offering a choice, which tends to reduce reactance.

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And, because everything we're recommending is designed to lower the stress level within your child as well as in your household, it will also help to reduce the likelihood of ironic processes taking place within the child. With all that interference out of the way, with the household having stepped down from DEFCON 1 crisis mode, your child can respond to your expectations about the behavior, which you've made clear over the previous days or weeks. You don't need to reiterate them. She hasn't forgotten them, and now she's more likely to respond positively to them.

It's still true that the most reliable and effective way to develop behavior—from toilet training to doing homework—is the regular procedure at the clinic that we outlined at the start of this article and have detailed in several of our Slate pieces. The situation we are talking about is a special one in which the supercharged context of parental eagerness produces oppositional behavior and refusal. The child is not unique in being oppositional. In this context, opposition is a normal and well-studied reaction of human behavior.

The solutions we have outlined here can work—quickly—and frequently do succeed at the Yale clinic, which is why they are worth a try, and if they don't, you have lost nothing more than a day or two, and the resulting decrease in pressure will provide a welcome break for all. The removal of desperation changes the antecedent condition, and now the desired behavior is much more likely to occur. It's not that you have to stop caring whether your child does what you want, but there are times when it's to everyone's advantage for you to show how you care in a different way.

Alan E. Kazdin, who was president of the American Psychological Association in 2008, is John M. Musser professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University and director of Yale's Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic.

Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College.