A Brief Study of Two Year Old Oppositional Behavior
Two year olds need to separate from their parents and
they do that through defiance. Understanding this, the
approach to a two year old is to shape his need to be
independent, not to quash saying "No." His need is to be
independent, to prove himself AND to be thought of as having
good qualities. That seems counterintuitive, given he
behaved so badly. But that two year old has limited
resources with which to express himself and developmentally
speaking, he is actually behaving normally, in this case by
being oppositional. His real need is to be recognized and
to flex his power. Normally, he behaves "badly," netting
some amount of negative feedback, so he comes to feel badly
about himself, in part, even though he was behaving
"according to programming." This last point may be the
most important one, as feeling badly about oneself is
something that pervades most negative reinforcement scenarios.
These are deep and global feelings that start early in one's
psychological development. (It's so central that I'm wrote
an ebook on how to repair one's self-image, The Four Powers
of Self-Esteem, which is linked to the author's website, below).
In the case of the two year old, the idea is to acknowledge,
even support the need (for independence, control, separation),
despite its style of manifestation (defiance, oppositional,
stubborn, contrary behaviors).
How do you do that? I had just such a case recently.
Mom brought in her two year old, Johnny, who would not cooperate
with ANY request. Mom presented Johnny and started out the
session, saying, "fix him." I looked at Johnny who was about
three feet tall and weighed about thirty pounds. Here was this
little being totally in control of an adult ten times his age,
four times his weight and nearly twice his height. Johnny
folded his arms across his chest, lowered his head and fixed
his gaze on me, non-verbally stating, "Go ahead...just try...."
Here was a kid who was very invested in having things his way.
I started out saying to Johnny, "Boy, you must be very
intelligent." He stopped dead in his tracks. He had not
heard this before. I then said, "Well, you can say 'no' to
everything Mom says, so you must be very strong and know a lot.
Mom says sit on the couch and you stand on the couch.
That means you know what's going on and are really smart."
(I'm saying positive things about the child and using language
a two year old can understand. I'm talking about his
xperiences in concrete ways.) I also realized that because
this child was two years old, the "terrible twos" were in full
swing. The child was very negative (oppositional) from Mom's
point of view. From my point of view, the child was just
asserting his individuality, with considerable personal power.
So, I told the child, "I know you are intelligent enough to do
the opposite of what people want. But I wonder if you are
eally that intelligent?" He didn't understand. I inadvertently
went over his head with an abstraction ("opposite").
I re-phrased. "I'll bet you are not smart enough to not do what
I want. I'll bet you can't sit on my couch for a whole minute."
The child, of course, was now motivated to prove me wrong (terrible
twos, wanting to "be his own person," yet responding to praise about
his intelligence), so he instantly hopped onto my couch, with his
feet dangling over the edge, folded his hands in his lap, said
nothing and stared at me (defiantly, of course). His mother nearly
fainted. This took less than two minutes. I then said, "Hmmmmm,
maybe you are more intelligent than even I thought. I'll bet you
can't do what your Mom wants, right now." I then looked at Mom
without saying anything, indicating with my raised eyebrows
(cueing Mom) that she could ask her son to do something. So,
Mom asked her son to stand up, walk to the door, and touch the
doorknob, then return to the couch. Her son did, this time
smiling. He was showing off his intelligence. I said to Mom,
"Well, that proves it. This kid is really smart. He can do
verything you want and prove it (that is, how smart he is)."
Mom thought I was brilliant, but all I did was work into the
conversation a lot of "positives" in the right ratio (4:1) and
be mindful of the developmental stage and needs of her son.
I turned around the negative dynamic. Rather than her son needing
to prove he was powerful and to be an individual by resisting,
now he could get more praise by cooperating. I didn't see this
Mom or her son again.
I got a little lucky and just happened to hit the core needs
with one kind of approach. What really changed this child's
behavior was that I recognized his many good qualities. When he
got the recognition he needed, the child's resistance disappeared.
The rest was just shaping to get the child to express his or her
good qualities (and needs) in more productive ways. Previously,
the child could not express his needs, except through "negative"
behavior. He did not have the vocabulary he needed because he
was only two. I gave him a set of behaviors he could do that
helped him meet deep needs. Mom was sharp and quickly took up
the reigns. Now her son could express his needs to be smart,
independent, etc. by doing good things. There was less need to
behave badly and no more need for a child psychologist.
(I constantly work myself out of a job...) Now think about
this negative psychology approach with teenagers, because it
works with this age group, too, with only a few modifications.