What follows is a media interview with Dr. James Sutton, educator, psychologist, and author of If My Kid’s So Nice … Why’s He Driving ME Crazy?
This interview was first aired on National Public Radio from the campus of Washington State University shortly after the release of the book.
Q: In your book, you talk about the “Good Kid” Disorder. What do you mean by that?
A: I’m referring to those youngsters who, by nature, really are good kids. They have friends and other social relationships, a sense of family, and they are not aggressive or violent. Their behaviors take the form of oppositionality and defiance.
Q: What kind of behaviors are we talking about?
A: Usually those behaviors that annoy and irritate others, such as refusal to complete schoolwork or appropriately handle responsibilities at home. More specifically, behaviors to watch for include psychological distress (irritability, fear, anger and depression), inefficiency (forgetting, poor skills of concentration and organization, procrastination, and poor performance in school), and manifestations of anger (pouting, stubbornness, blaming, arguing, spitefulness, and noncompliance).
Q: How many children exhibit these kinds of behaviors?
A: As high as 25% of a group of youngsters (school classroom, church group, club, or family). Generally, however, we’re talking about 2-5 children in the average school classroom.
Q: How did you come to study oppositional and defiant behavior in children?
A: In the mid ’70s I was a junior high school teacher. I noticed it then and wanted to learn more. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the subject in 1981, then of course the present book.
Q: How do we know when a youngster’s oppositional and defiant behaviors are becoming really serious?
A: Obviously they are serious if they cause the youngster to do really poorly in school, or fail. We also know that these behaviors are a concern when parents and teachers can begin to actually predict the behaviors before they happen. As the oppositional and defiant behaviors get worse, the adults sometimes pull away a bit from the youngster. This usually makes the behaviors worse.
Q: Pull away? What do you mean?
A: If, as a parent or teacher, we struggle with a child at every turn, we become upset, and are apt to have less to do with the youngster, even when things are going well. It’s a subtle thing, but it’s there.
Q: How do adults typically deal with the oppositional and defiant child?
A: In the book I outline seven “No-lutions,” typical reactions of adults that don’t work. These include ignoring, pleading, bargaining, helping, threatening, anger, and, believe it or not, oppositionality and defiance.
(A number of “spin off” questions could follow these “No-lutions”. The guest is prepared to offer specific examples to each case.)
Q: What causes oppositional and defiant behavior to happen in the first place?
A: In a nutshell—resentment against authority. This can be due to actual distress in the family, such as divorce, a move, or the loss of a loved one. In other cases, the youngster feels that adults are expecting too much of him or her. With other youngsters, their behavior is that way from day one—it’s the nature of their disposition.
Q: Well then why don’t these youngsters just tell the adults why they are so unhappy?
A: Some do, but many of them don’t, and there are a couple of reasons why. For one, children, especially the younger ones, are unsophisticated in interpreting their own emotions. They don’t like how they feel, but they can’t explain it very well. That’s why we watch behaviors so closely in children. For the child, behaviors speak volumes, even when the child can’t—or won’t.
The other reason why youngsters don’t always tell us directly about how they feel is because they are afraid. They are fearful that key adults in their lives would reject them if they were honest.
Q: It sounds like it could be difficult sometimes to get through to the oppositional and defiant child.
Q: So how do we “fix” this kid?
A: There are three ways to get started—understanding, affirmation, and empowerment. At this point the listeners have a pretty good handle on the understanding part. It is really important to realize that the child is entitled to be as angry and upset as we are. We influence the most change in our children when we first begin to change ourselves.
Affirmation reaches beyond any expectations that we have for a youngster. In other words, the child doesn’t have to do anything for us to affirm him or her, and it’s best when the youngster does not feel pressured to respond. For instance, a parent could say to a daughter, in an almost casual way, “You know Mary, we struggle with each other sometimes, but, even so, you’re one of the best things that ever came into my life. I’m glad you’re my daughter; I just wanted you to know that.” Then the parent should ask a non-related question or find a reason to leave the room, making it comfortable for the youngster not to respond. A seed has been planted.
Empowerment has two parts, empowering the youngster to be more direct and honest regarding his or her feelings (we’d better be able to take it), and empowering the youngster to be a bit more self-directed. This is best accomplished by offering the child choices, something that ensures that the youngster is more apt to initiate and complete that which he or she has selected. There are a number of ways to do this, and all are pretty effective (examples).
Q: One chapter in your book is titled “Spit in the Soup.” You’ve got to explain that one.
A: Hey, if you’re at lunch with a friend, and you lean over and spit in their soup, there’s a lot of things you could say, but you could never say that it was an accident. It was deliberate. Sometimes the careful use of deliberate and provocative behavior with the oppositional and defiant child is a very effective intervention. It’s effective because it predicts what the child might do, then he or she no longer wants to do it.
Q: Thank you for the ideas and suggestions. I understand that you have something for our listeners.
A: Yes, an article I’ve written, 7 Tips for Getting Along Better with Your Kids. These are ideas that can be used immediately. Actually, there are a number of articles available. Simply go to my website, www.docspeak.com, and click on the link that says The ODD Page/Free Articles. It can be downloaded immediately.
Q: And the book?
A: If My Kid’s So Nice … Why’s He Driving ME Crazy? is 17 chapters with a glossary, references, and an index. It’s available through any bookstore, or can be ordered online by going to friendlyoakspublications.com. It can also be put on a credit card by calling 800-659-6628.