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  • Jessica Abegglen, LPC, NBCC

Responding to Oppositional Behaviors in Kids

If you have worked with, or currently parent, a child who displays oppositional behaviors you know how mind-numbingly infuriating it can be. It's even more infuriating if you have worked with (or parented) other kids who responded just fine to your strategies and techniques while your oppositional kid responds completely differently.

Well, I'm sorry to say, that's the whole thing about oppositional kiddos: they always do the opposite of what you're hoping for.

On one side of the spectrum is a strong-willed kiddo - you say day, they say night; However, they know it's actually day, they're just not going to let you know they know - no harm done. On the other end of the spectrum is a kid who meets the criteria for Oppositional Defiant Disorder. With this kiddo - you say day, they say night, BUT they actually are going to be pissed; They might even get overly upset, irritated, or maybe violent that you said day. (If this is your kiddo, reach out for support from you child's doctor).

No matter where on this spectrum your kid falls, here are some strategies that can help you save your sanity while empathetically supporting your kiddo:

1. BREATHE. Kids who display oppositional behaviors are exhausting. Make sure to take care of yourself and breathe often. When you feel yourself getting caught up in the argument, or wanting to "prove your point," take a breath. Those few seconds of mindfulness can make a huge difference in your ability to stay calm, disengage (see #2), and follow through (see #4).

2. DISENGAGE. Whether a strong-willed kid or a truly oppositionally defiant child, sometimes (okay, a lot of the time) disengaging is essential. There will be moments when you need to take a step back, walk away, and not allow the argument to continue. They won't back down. They can't (yet). So you will need to. If no one's safety is in jeopardy, then disengaging might be the only way for the argument to end.

3. PICK YOUR BATTLES. Truly oppositional children will fight everything. Every. Little. Thing. So you need to pick your battles. Let go (see #2) of things that don't impact their safety, or the safety of others, and hold firm to things that can impact their safety (or the safety of others). Learning to pick your battles and identifying the non-negotiables is difficult, but essential. You have to know where to put your energy and not to waste energy on things that aren't essential.

4. FOLLOW THROUGH - CALMLY. Sometimes you need to disengage, sometimes you need to pick your battles. If there is a battle you need to pick, then stand your ground and follow through. It's hard. But following through is essential so that your oppositional child learns that no matter how much they dig their heals in, you are going to stand your ground and follow through...calmly. Getting overly frustrated yourself won't help. Just continue to remind your your child what your expectations are, remind them what will happen if they don't follow through, and then, calmly, reinforce the consequences. Every, single time.

The hardest part about following that you have to. Every time.

The one time you don't - your kiddo just learned what your limit is and will try to get you to your limit the next time.

5. SUPPORT WITH EMPATHY. I have never worked with an oppositional child (or even a strong-willed kiddo) who enjoys the need to control their environment. Most of the time these kiddos are just as frustrated as the parents/caregivers are. Try to remind yourself of this when you become frustrated. Remind yourself that these fights/arguments/blow-ups don't feel good to them either. Validate their frustrations. Remind them they are loved. And, if they can, talk to them about how they are feeling once they are calm. Understanding your kiddo's need tendency to be oppositional can help you to respond with support and empathy.

6. FIND SUPPORT. Being a parent or caregiver of a kiddo who is oppositional is not only exhausting, but also alienating. I have yet to meet a parent who isn't riddled with guilt and shame. First and foremost talk to your medical doctor about your concerns. They may be able to offer some great support/strategies. Talk to a therapist. Not only can a therapist help with your own emotional response towards your child, but can support you with new parenting strategies. Support groups can also be a huge help - they offer the time and space to connect with other parents/caregivers who have children like yours.

Knowing you are not alone makes a huge difference in your ability to respond calmly and empathetically to your oppositional child.


Jessica specializes in working with those who have cognitive disabilities and mental health concerns as well as children with extreme behaviors (ODD and RAD).

If you are interested in scheduling an appointment with Jessica, you can reach her

via email @


call our intake line: 608-709-6972

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[This article does not create a client-counselor relationship. This article is general counseling information and is not to be considered legal or medical advice. Please consult with your mental health professional before you rely on this information.]

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