Coping With Oppositional Behavior


Q: My 6-year-old son is difficult to manage. He refuses to listen or obey and is openly defiant. I never had this type of problem with my two older children. Nothing seems to work. What should I do?

A: Oppositional behavior is an intentional act of resistance or antagonism. It is often seen when a child becomes angry or feels powerless. It is normal to be resistant or defiant at times, but when a child acts this way all of the time to get what he wants, it can be disruptive to the entire family. The reasons behind oppositional behavior are many, and it is important for you to figure out where this behavior might be coming from. Think about the following:     

  • Is your child in any physical discomfort? 
  • Is he getting enough rest and eating a balanced diet? Families with older kids often have demanding schedules that can deprive the youngest child of regular sleep and mealtimes.
  • Is he struggling with learning differences, attention issues or being bullied at school? These can be a source of frustration and decreased self-esteem, which can fuel a child’s “acting out” behaviors.
  • Is there emotional instability in your home, such as frequent sibling arguments or marital discord? These problems can contribute to a child’s short-temperedness and irritability.
  • Is he spending too much time in front of a computer screen or the TV? Consider whether your child is getting enough exercise and free time to develop the skills needed to calm himself and to appropriately cope when feeling anxious or disappointed.

Start by giving positive attention to your child every day to show how much you love and value him. Establish clear expectations of rewards and consequences during times when he is not acting out and you are calm. Have your child repeat them to make sure he understands what will happen if he chooses to misbehave. When your child begins to show signs of frustration and anger:

  • Acknowledge his feelings with statements such as “I can see how hard this is for you right now.”
  • Minimize the amount of attention you give to his negative behaviors such as pouting, stomping, etc.
  • Praise him for making positive strides.
  • Remain consistent. If you tell your child no, mean it and stick to it. If you allow him to manipulate you or change your mind, he will learn that oppositional behavior is a means to get his way.
  • Offer your child choices when possible. For example “Which reward would you like to earn for cleaning up your toys, 30 minutes of computer time, or 30 minutes of outside time?” The expectation of cleaning up the toys is implicit and non-negotiable, but the reward can be his choice. 

 A prominently displayed sticker chart is an easy-to-create behavior contract and an easy-to-follow visual tool for children and parents. Create simple goals such as “follow directions” or “use kind words.” Placing their own stickers in the spaces is a great short-term reward for a child. Earning a certain number of stickers during a given period of time may be rewarded with something more significant such as “stay up 30 minutes longer” or “play a game with Dad.” It is important for your child to make the connection between behavior and reward, or he will not be motivated to change.

If your child’s emotional and physical needs are being met and behavioral modifications are still not helping, consider professional support.

Oppositional defiant disorder is a diagnosis given to children who demonstrate hostile and defiant behavior, along with several other criteria for at least six months, and whose behavior significantly impairs their social or academic lives. Call your pediatrician or mental health professional if you are still having problems and seek support for yourself as well.  

Susan Michels works with children and adolescents at Cone Health Behavioral Health Hospital. Please submit your questions to “Is My Kid OK?” by emailing


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