When the Opposition is Just Too Much

Posted: June 20, 2023

  1. See the issues from the child’s perspective:

Often very bright, oppositional and defiant children feel as if adults are trying to control them, which they simply cannot tolerate. They come to the world curious about a variety of things and able to pick up on subtleties. They’re forming their own conclusions about how things should happen. When a “giant” (adult) comes along to tell them otherwise, their response is to rebel, despite the adult/child differential. If adults use an authoritarian approach the game is on. Being bright involves having a very strong sense of justice, and this approach is highly unjust in their eyes.

If the oppositional child is not thought to be particularly bright, the same principle applies. With trauma backgrounds, for instance, the idea of being controlled is untenable for the child. You’ll see the opposition when it’s bedtime, if abuse happened in the bedroom, or you’ll see it during transitions, if the unknown change feels threatening due to high anxiety (fear from the past that still lives in the child.) 

  1. Listen and reflect:

“You hate it when people try to control you and tell you what to do.”

“You wish you could make all the decisions for your life and you don’t understand why adults are always making them.”

“You’re worried about what will happen when bedtime comes.”

“You can’t stand moving from one activity to another when you’re not sure what will happen next.”

To read or listen to my book, click here: QR codes Present Moment Parenting; The Guide to a Peaceful Life with Your Intense Child

Pause.  Reflect what comes next. Pause. Repeat.  If the child says, “Why are you talking so weird?” answer, “Because I want you to know I really see and hear you.”

This is not agreeing with the child, nor is it condoning the negative feelings.  It’s hearing and seeing them to calm the amygdala so they feel safe and assured of survival. Then and only then can they take in logic (pre-frontal cortex function) from adults.

  1. Use heartfelt appreciation:

“When you connected with the kitty just now, I saw your tenderness and it made my heart sing.”

“When you changed your response to my request from “no way” to “I can do it in a minute,” it showed me how grown up you’re getting.”

“When you didn’t want to do your homework, but you went ahead and did 5 math problems, I saw how you can give things a try even when it’s hard. Amazing.”

“When you were worried about how the kids would treat you at school, but you got ready and went anyway, I noticed that you are willing to let go and see if things can get better. And then you said the kids were ok, and wow, that was impressive.”

  1. Explain what loving parents do:

“Parents who love their kids do all they can to keep them safe. It feels like we’re trying to control you, but in fact, we are just working to keep you safe, emotionally and physically.”

If these are true: “When I was pregnant with you, I took care of my body and got medical care to bring you into the world safely. When you were a baby, I provided food, clothing, shelter, medical care and love.  When you were a toddler, I helped you stay safe by holding your hand in the street. When you were in elementary school, I made sure the teachers knew about you so you would get what you needed. Caring for your child never ends if you’re a parent, not even when your child is a teen. I only offer my ideas to you because I love you, not because I’m trying to control you. This is just what parents who love their kids do.” 

In the case of birth parents whose children have been removed from their homes:
“I didn’t have what it took to take care of you at that time. I’m grateful that your grandma/foster parent(s)/aunt and uncle could provide for you in my place. Now I’m getting support in becoming the parent I was always meant to be, loving you like parents should love their kids.”

For foster parents:
Same as for parents, only shorter term:

“Foster parents who love their kids do everything to help kids feel emotionally and physically safe at home and in the world. When we ‘tell you what to do,’ you’re right, we’re not your parents. But we have dedicated ourselves to your wellbeing and safety, which involves making sure life goes as smoothly as possible for you and our family while you’re with us. Part of being well involves an orderly home, cooperation with routines, and listening – us listening to you and you listening to us. We understand that you’ve experienced a lot of hard things in your life, including (what led up to being removed and being removed), which makes it really hard to adjust to life in our home. We definitely take that into account while we help you adjust to life here. We’re not trying to control you, but we are working to make our home a safe and supportive place for you and everyone else here.”

  1. Ask their opinion:

Instead of saying, “no,” which is a word to which these kids are totally allergic, ask a question.  “How” is always a great go-to for this.

“You want to go out with your friends right now. How does that work with the fact that we’re celebrating your brother’s birthday tonight?”

“You can’t understand why we ask you to straighten up the things you use around the house. How would that work if we all just left things out after we used them?”

“I understand that you don’t care about the house being straightened up. How does that go with being a valued member of our family?”

  1. Need them authentically:

“You love to organize the books in your room, so I realized that we could use your talent for that when we need to clean out the garage? Are you up for helping out?”

“Your artistic ability is amazing. What color do you think this room should be?”

“Could you be the one who helps with the dishes tonight, so we can play that board game sooner?”

“We need some meals planned before grocery shopping. Would you help me make the list and go with me to the store, so I mostly stick with the plan?”

“That laundry is piling up this week. If you take care of this basket, I could get you brother to take the other one, and we’ll be all set with clean clothes where we can find them.”

“You’re so good at solving problems when you play video games. You strategize to make sure your guy stays alive about 100 times a day. I need help with problem solving around where to plant these shrubs. Are you available?”

All of these tips recognize the human being in front of you instead of the one you wish you had. They help to draw the child toward you instead of pushing them away (we’re always doing one or the other.) This is incredibly powerful “seeing” of children and “freeing” them to let go of opposition and to join you. When they’re seen, they’re free to collaborate, but it won’t happen before they’re seen.  Yes, it takes a lot of upfront adjusting to new ways of interacting with children, but the return on investment is enormous. A connected, freed child is a delight to be around, and you deserve to have that!

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I See You Letter

“I See You” Letter

Another tool for helping a child with a traumatized brain, or any child who is asking for attention by showing unwanted behavior, is an “I see you” letter. When something is put into writing, it weighs more. The child can read the message without having to hear the adult’s voice, which is more effective because adult voices have sometimes not proven trustworthy in the past. I encourage caregivers to write the letter in a notebook, so the child can write back, if she so chooses, and review the letter at any time. The re-reading can be very healing. When I’ve encouraged other adults to write this type of letter, they’ve told me that they’ve found it later, stashed in a drawer or other safe spot, but never thrown away, which speaks to its significance to the child.

               You can write a letter to a child of any age. If she is old enough to read, just leave it on her pillow. If not, write it out and read it slowly, then hand it to her.

               If the child is so hurt that listening to you read a letter is too much, try posting notes that say what you see in her all over her room. Use the components below to craft your letter or your notes.
               The components of the “I See You Letter” are:

  1. I see what you've been through (in details that are significant to her, maybe just the things you know she remembers). You may want to add, "And other things, too, that we haven't talked about." This could spark a response where she shares more.
  2. In light of your experiences, I realize that none of your recent behavior is your fault. You were just trying to express your pain.
  3. I'm sorry I blamed you when I just didn't realize that your behavior was your pain being expressed.
  4. Together we'll work on making it better, and here's how: ______

An example:

Dear Ana,

I just wanted to tell you what I see when I look at you. I see a kid who has had some very rough experiences. When you were younger, your adults did not do what they needed to do to keep you safe. No child should have this happen, as every child deserves and needs to be kept safe. Your mom left you with people who hurt you, and your dad left without saying why. That must hurt so much. I want you to know that this was never, ever your fault. You were an innocent child.

I see a kid who is sensitive and smart. I see a kid who is amazing at figuring out other people. I so appreciate hearing you express what you know long before others your age can do that. I see a kid with artistic ability, and one who cares deeply for our pets. When I watch you with younger children, I am so impressed with how tender you are.

I realize I have gotten angry with you and yelled when you were upset with me. I now get that you just felt threatened, and you did not mean to hurt my feelings or disrespect me. I’m sorry and I will try very hard not to yell in the future. If I make a mistake and yell (because we all make mistakes), I will apologize and have a do-over, because no one deserves to be yelled at.

If you feel like writing back to me in this notebook, that’s great. Feel very free to do so. If not, I’m fine with that, too. I’m just happy to be able to use this notebook to say what I want to tell you in writing.

I am so happy you are in my life. Thank you for all the gifts you give me, especially your smile.


Mom/Dad/Grandma/Grandpa/Other caregiver

I encourage adults not to ever mention the letter, nor to expect him to say he read it and liked it. For a traumatized child, this may be too much vulnerability. But what often happens is that adults notice a softening in their child, a better attitude, more affection, more focus, and more cooperation. That’s the goal of writing: to see the child clearly, communicate it, allow the amygdala to register that the child is seen and therefore will survive, watch the result in a much more relaxed and relieved child and in an improved relationship. I often describe this process as being “like physics,” as predictable as proven science. It’s truly remarkable how dramatic the results are! And when you think about it, the seeing is the tool for calming the threat alarm. No wonder the child can now function so much more rationally. The more rational front brain is able to work!

I See You Letter