Regardless of your child’s diagnostic “label” (or lack thereof), if your son or daughter is persistently defiant and difficult, he or she might just have an addiction. In this case I’m not talking about a drug addiction, but an addiction to the negative reactions of others. In their book, Transforming the Difficult Child, Howard Glasser, MA, and Jennifer Easley, MA describe difficult children as being “literally addicted to negative reactions.”
It sounds a little peculiar, but it makes sense. Some children continue to defy authority, rebel, throw tantrums, and do inappropriate things over and over again. (I’m referring to children who know better, but do it anyway–not children who are autistic or otherwise cognitively impaired.) When we parent kids who just seem to always gravitate toward trouble, we wonder how their behaviors make any sense. What kid would WANT to be in trouble with adults all the time? Why is he or she choosing chaos again and again? And why can’t the child be reasoned with?
If you’ve read my previous blogs you know that I have one daughter in particular who has struggled for many years with being disrespectful, mean, and temperamental. She would likely be classified as ADHD/ODD, but I’m trying to examine her individual tendencies. I know that sometimes even she cannot understand why she does what she does. An addiction to negative reactions seems like a reasonable explanation in her case. An addict keeps going back to what she thinks will help her cope with her inadequacies, no matter how damaging the result.
What Causes the Addiction?
Somehow the child develops the learned perception that there is a greater payoff from misbehavior than compliance. Warnings, reprimands, lectures, and scoldings can create attention so powerful that the child, in a backwards way, begins to feel like the center of the universe within her household. And the continual misbehavior only ensures that important status. As long as the child misbehaves, everyone is talking about her, talking to her, watching her, worrying about her, scolding her, and focusing on her every move. Even celebrities know that negative press, as rotten as it feels, is still press. And that means people are paying attention.
Who knows why the child develops this perception in the first place. Perhaps his parents are preoccupied with careers and adult matters. Perhaps the child is threatened by other siblings and feels inadequate. Or maybe he just has a greater need for validation than most kids, and ordinary amounts of parental focus just don’t cut it.
Don’t Water the Weeds!
As we’ve heard many times before, the solution is to change our parental responses so that the payoff is much better for compliance than disobedience. Whenever possible, we must have a limited, barely-there response to bad behavior. (Putting the child on a naughty stool is one way of dealing with misbehavior with little to no attention paid to the child). Then, we must ramp up the positive feedback when the child does the RIGHT thing. Lots of reaction to bad behavior is like watering the weeds. Throwing a lot of dirty water on the problem only makes things worse.
But my child rarely obeys me! How can I give positive feedback if she won’t comply at all?
Be sneaky. For example, if your daughter climbs into the car and shuts the door, turn and make eye contact with her and say, “Thank you for closing the door and getting ready to put on your seatbelt. I appreciate that!” She might look at you like you’re from Mars, but keep at it. Find even the tiniest examples of your child doing the right thing and reward them with a direct gaze, smile, and expression of appreciation. Even if he’s just sitting and doodling on a piece of paper, offer a hug and thanks for keeping himself so quietly occupied.
Expect a Withdrawal
If you think of your combative child as addicted to negative reactions, you can also understand that changing your behavior may cause a withdrawal period at first. Your son or daughter may initially increase the bad behaviors in a desperate attempt to get the previous result. Just keep ignoring the bad and praising the good. Know that there will be some hard days before things level off. Be consistent. Eventually your child will seek the positive attention he really needs, from good behaviors.
Kristyn Crow is the author of this blog. Visit her website by clicking here. Some links on this blog may have been generated by outside sources are not necessarily endorsed by Kristyn Crow.
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