Children Opposing Parents: Talking Back or Positive Assertion of Self?

child-refusing-cerealAt every stage of development, children thrive when their parents listen to their ideas about what they want. When you consider and take your child’s perspective seriously—even if it’s quite different than your own—you are demonstrating your respect for their growing, unique, individual selves. This doesn’t mean you have to agree or say yes, but you do need to express your understanding of what your child wishes. By recognizing that your child is not talking back but instead asserting their developing self, you provide your child with the foundations for self-confidence and self-esteem. Differences create much less distance between parent and child when they are acknowledged and respected.

Examining feelings before taking action

As I thought about a number of clients I see in psychotherapy whose parents had trouble distinguishing between talking back and self-assertion, I recalled a television show I saw recently. In that show, a six-year-old sitting at the dinner table with her parents suddenly announced she was a vegetarian. At first, the parents dismissed her claims and insisted she eat the meat in front of her. She stubbornly refused. After arguing with her a little, they ultimately respected her wishes. In the next scene the grandparents come to babysit while the parents went out. Grandma brought her granddaughter’s once-favorite meal that contained meat. The child stubbornly refused.  Grandpa insisted. The child refused. Grandma insisted, more refusal. Grandpa said “You will sit at this table until you eat your dinner.” Was the six-year-old talking back or asserting herself? The parents’ eventual response to their daughter’s announcement suggests they might answer that she was asserting herself. The grandparents, who ended up in a power struggle with their grandchild, would probably say she was talking back.

When our children say “no” to us, or when they ask us for things that we are inclined to say “no” to, we respond not only based on what our heads tell us. We have feelings about their differing wishes and perspectives. When our children assert themselves or oppose us in this way, it is useful to ask ourselves, “What am I feeling and why am I feeling it?” We can then look at our feeling responses as information that can help guide our behavior. For example, the grandparents in the television show might have been feeling that “this child is so hurtful, rejecting this meal that grandma made especially for her.” They may have felt disrespected. It isn’t unusual for parents to feel that they should be completely in charge of their children. When parents feel disrespected, they are likely to feel hurt and angry. In such a feeling state, it would seem to make sense to immediately say “no” to the child’s wishes. If we stop and look at our feelings, we may notice that we are hurt and angry and that we are expressing our feelings in the spoken “no.”  Paying attention to our feelings before going into action allows us to act in more thoughtful, respectful, and constructive ways.

If Grandpa thought about his granddaughter’s wishes, he might consider that she is trying on a new way of being in the world.  She is communicating: “I am an individual who is different from my family.” She is testing the question, “Am I allowed to be separate?” This perspective on the child’s behavior is very different than viewing her simply as a talking-back, ungrateful, stubborn child. The parents of this child also had negative feelings about the child’s desire to be a vegetarian. They said “no” but they reconsidered. Whatever they initially felt, they obviously thought about their response. Perhaps they recognized their daughter’s attempt to individuate her sense of self.

If we ask the question, “What am I feeling when my child asserts herself against my parental opinions and authority?” we can often avoid power struggles and tensions with our children. We can ask ourselves questions like: “What makes what our child wants wrong or disrespectful?” “Are children always supposed to go along with what parents want?” “What is going on with my child that she is responding this way?” “Why is it better for my child to wear my choice of clothes?” “Am I trying to avoid feeling embarrassed by my child?” “Why should I force my child to go to the park, or on a play date, or to a party when he doesn’t want to go?” “Why should I insist my child go to sleep-away camp even if she says she is scared?”

There are no right and wrong answers to these questions. These questions help us to not simply react. It is the parents’ job to determine which of their child’s demands are to be denied. For example, if the child refuses to go to the park and the parent thinks it is best the child be active or have fresh air, the parent may decide this is not a decision that is up to the child. However, it is always important when the child says “no” that you get more information. Suppose it turns out that the child who refuses to go to the playground is being bullied by the older kids. If the parent can get the child to tell them this information, the parent can then find a different playground, or help the child with the bullying. It is most important that the parent talk with their individuating child, making sure to listen and consider what the child has to say.

The process of individuation

It is part of every child’s normal development that after the infant emerges from the very special closeness (symbiosis) with mother, the processes of separation and individuation begin. The process of individuation includes the child’s exploration and experimentation with who they are and who they are becoming. As early as two or three, children begin to express their “no” emphatically and loudly. This is important in the development of self. For the young child, saying “no” is one of the earliest signs of individuation. It is stating that “I am separate from you and want something different.” When children can say “no,” they are preparing themselves to say “yes.”  Saying “yes” is an assertion of the developing self.  “Yes” is an announcement of who I am (or who I am becoming) and what I want.

While the individuation process is typically described as belonging to the early years of development, the process continues well into adulthood. It is often a surprise for the parents of adolescence to find they are dealing with the same issues that they faced when their child was two or three. The opposition, the tantrums, the stubbornness of the three-year-old have returned. The fights, the silent anger, the “you just don’t get it” feelings that adolescents express are continuations of the individuation process: the creation of the unique individual self.

Because teenagers need to be given more room to experiment with their selves, parents have a more difficult job of determining where and when to set limits. The dilemma is that adolescents need to develop more control over their lives, but they are more at risk with the wide range of possibilities available to them. No one would suggest parents give up limits around things like alcohol and drugs. But what do you do when you don’t like your child’s friend?  How do you respond to curfews, borrowing the car, requests for birth control? If you want to avoid power struggles, do the best you can to talk and listen to your adolescent. You also continue the process of examining what you are feeling about your child’s demands and requests. It is always important to know what your feelings are before you figure out how you want to respond to your child. The important thing is to talk with your child and respond with more than a “no” or “because I said so.”

Building loving relationships through curiosity

Helping our children to become self-confident individuals requires that we talk with our children. We try to listen, hear and consider what our children are saying. This means that parents need to explore what children’s “no’s” are about. Why is the child saying no? What would the problem be for the child if she said yes? What would the problem be for the parent if they said yes to the child? When you work with your children to try and understand their point of view, they are more likely to be interested in hearing and considering your opinion. This talking will help your children to experience you as interested in them as individuals and they will be less likely to experience your ideas and decisions as arbitrary. This doesn’t mean there will always be agreement between parent and child. The same way that couples ideally try and understand each other’s points of view, parents and children—especially adolescents—have closer and more loving relationships when they develop the capacity to be curious about the other person’s experience.

© Copyright 2011 by By Beverly Amsel, PhD, therapist in New York City, New York. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • lee

    lee

    March 7th, 2011 at 7:42 PM

    children opposing parents is not a crime. it is a part of their growing up and their individuation. but as for everything else there is a limit for this too. and it is for the parents to monitor how far their kids are in this regard and correct them accordingly.

  • adrienne

    adrienne

    March 8th, 2011 at 5:44 AM

    When kids talk back they are tring to see how far they can push the line. With some children you can easily nudge them back to reality with a look, but there are others who are geared up for a fight and nothing else will do. I think that like all issues with parenting it is a matter of knwoing which battles are going to be worth fighting and which ones you have to let go. You know your child better than anyone else does so a lot of that is going to have to come from you, knowing how much pushing you can live with and where the line in the sand needs to be drawn to maintain your overall family harmony.

  • RICKY

    RICKY

    March 8th, 2011 at 10:55 AM

    It isn’t a problem when there is a difference in what a parent and a child want. It becomes a problem when the parent thinks the child is revolting,when the parent’s I-am-in-complete-control feeling gets threatened.

    And a much better way fir parents to react instead of trying to force something onto a child would be to show the child why his or her decision is not the right one and how it can spur something negative.

  • Super Bat

    Super Bat

    March 8th, 2011 at 7:18 PM

    This is one of those one-is-too-little-and-two-is-too-much topics. There are no set rules and it is for the parents to decide how to react to such a thing from their kids. They may choose to explain to the child why their idea may not work or be happy that the little one is making their own choices.

  • Amy

    Amy

    March 9th, 2011 at 5:46 AM

    My parents should have read this back in the day when I was a smart aleck kid. But I’m just asserting myself Mom! Yeah right. That line of reasoning would have gotten me nowhere.

  • Joel

    Joel

    March 10th, 2011 at 3:31 PM

    Kids have their likes and dislikes, and also their phases. If they want to try something different, let them and see how it goes. You don’t need to micromanage your children. If you control them too much it could have an adverse effect on their mental state.

  • Petal

    Petal

    March 10th, 2011 at 6:43 PM

    I saw the same show you referred to there (it was an episode of Parenthood) where the six year old announced she was going to be a vegetarian and refused to eat the chicken dinner or the meal the grandmother brought for her later. I thought it was ridiculous the way the parents pandered to her instead of just saying eat your dinner. The mother’s excuse for allowing it to the grandparents was that she didn’t want to crush her spirit. What nonsense! This is why so many children today are spoiled brats that grow up into petulant, demanding teens. No parent has a spine anymore. Your kids are not your buddies, so do your job and parent them! It does them no good to go along with every whim.

  • Kristin

    Kristin

    March 12th, 2011 at 9:11 PM

    I’d say the kid was asserting herself. Besides, it’s not the grandparents place to raise the kid, even if they’re taking care of her for a time. If my nephew converted to Judaism and I tried to make him eat something that isn’t kosher, my brother-in-law would probably throw me out the front door.

  • Neil

    Neil

    March 12th, 2011 at 10:57 PM

    Individuality is just part of how humans are. I am completely different from most of my family in my religious and political views and they accept it. If they tried to force me to be like them, I’d probably dismiss them from my life, complete with a rude gesture.

  • Ronan

    Ronan

    March 13th, 2011 at 7:39 PM

    On the playdates and such: never, ever force your son or daughter into that. While you’re not around, nothing stops them from lashing out and hitting another child or generally being very badly behaved because they don’t want to be there. Why risk it? You need to ask yourself “Does this -have- to be done?”. Does it benefit you more or the child? If it’s you because it makes you feel like you’re being a better parent, forget it.

  • Eli W.

    Eli W.

    March 18th, 2011 at 4:35 PM

    I think that we shuld get the same respect that and adult has and we should get the to make our own chioces in order to fix things right. and when they say I dont want to hear it. think they should hear it all were doing is what’s right.

  • Beverly Amsel, Ph.D.

    Beverly Amsel, Ph.D.

    March 26th, 2011 at 10:23 AM

    I am struck by how so many responses really understand that these “talking back” situations with our children are not black and white. Suggestions about talking to our kids, not getting into controlling and micromanaging are on target and result in balance rather than rigidity. Being a parent requires setting limits but also allowing enough freedom for a child to test their growing individuality. I like Ronan’s idea to ask yourself ‘”Does it benefit you more or the child?” Anytime we stop and think before we act, we increase the opportunity for a more constructive response.

  • Vicki

    Vicki

    April 14th, 2013 at 2:46 AM

    It makes me furious reading the incident you’ve provided. I am outraged that parents believe the children should obey them, I believe this is disrespectful. I sickens me that parents call it “talking back” instead of “expressing their own opinion”. I believe everyone deserves respect, children or adult. To respect someone, you have to listen to their opinion, allow them express their ideas freely, have empathy. I believe the parents are in the mindset of “the children must obey and listen to me because I am always right”. Parents shouldn’t correct children, but guide them. I believe trying to correct or control an individual will only bring adverse effects on their mental health.

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