Dear Dr. Comer:
My husband and I feel that our 8-year-old son deliberately takes the opposite position to whatever we say or suggest no matter how trivial. If we say it's time to shop or it would be nice to go to the park he says no or wants to do something else.
We know he's deliberately trying to irritate us, but why? I think he is well treated. We are a middle-income black family without serious financial problems or other stresses.
He is an only child. Could that be part of the problem? If not, what could be going on? -- N. H. Dear N. H.:
The fact that your son is an only child could be a part of the problem, but probably only a small part. It sounds more like a power struggle. Such struggles are common, but some are extreme. And extreme situations can be irritating, as you indicated. They can also interfere with a child's ability to think and act in his own best interests.
We adults usually don't think about how much more competent we are than our children. Nor do we give much thought to how much more authority and control we have than they do. But they observe and experience these differences every day. When we play checkers or throw a ball to them we can usually win or do it better. We tell them when to go to bed, when they can and can't go out to play, buy a treat and on and on.
Most children identify with parents -- even when the parent-child relationship is not good -- and imitate us. That's why you often see children acting toward their dolls, other playthings and other children as parents act toward them -- bossy. Children who by temperament and through experience become aggressive and reactive may make a serious effort to control their parents. They have no way of knowing that their responses may be self-harmful.
One clear way to control parents is by doing the opposite of what they want. That can start as early as the second year of life. Experts refer to extreme cases in which such a response becomes a fixed pattern as "the oppositional child."
Such a child is not learning to think and act in a responsible, self-beneficial way. The emotional need to control the parents really ties the child even more tightly to them.
Actually, the same forces can be at play in all relationships where one group has far more power than the other: economically strong employers and employes; racial, ethnic and religious minorities and the majority; teachers and students; parents and children.
Such behavior is less likely when persons with power demonstrate that they are attempting to promote reasonable opportunity for all. Parents reduce oppositional behavior by helping their children acquire specific skills and giving them as much opportunity to manage their own lives as they can handle.
This does not mean that parents should relinquish their authority and control. For example, an 8-year-old was getting up late, missing the school bus and was tired in school because he was staying up too late. Instead of saying, "You will," his parents said, "What time do you need to get up in the morning to be able to make the school bus, is it 8 o'clock, 8:30 or 9 o'clock?" m
They were helping him think about the consequences of staying up too late, taking an action that was in his own best interest and controlling his own life in a responsible way. The youngster who is given some responsibility for controlling his own life and is helped to do so in a reasonable way is less likely to be oppositional.
If he had said that he would go to bed at 1 o'clock in the morning the parents should then exercise their authority and establish a reasonable time. They should indicate that the child will be allowed to make such decisions when he or she is able to do so in a responsible way.