Offering Choices to Address Defiant Behavior

Oct 21, 2016

I have been working with a three year old who has struggled to control his behaviors and emotions for much of his young life. He has had problems at preschool, at home, and in public. Mom and Dad were at their wit’s end with the scathing looks from strangers, embarrassment of not being able to control their child, and living in fear about the next tantrum or meltdown.

One of their major struggles was that “Adam” refused to do simple tasks, like getting dressed, wearing shoes, and leaving toys alone that were not his. All of these issues eventually emerged in the play room with me, giving me the opportunity to implement choices to address the problematic behaviors. This also allowed Mom and Dad to witness the process, helping them to feel more confident about using the skills in their daily parenting.

Refusing to Get Dressed

One morning, Adam walked into my office for his session wearing nothing but his shorts. Mom reported that he would not get dressed, and that she was “lucky to get him to put his shorts on.” While a child does not specifically need a shirt or shoes on to play with me in the play room, I realized that in other instances, clothes would be required. So, here is the process that I implemented:

**Note: The very first thing I did was to get down on his level. Eye level is crucial when you are addressing something with a child.

Me: Adam, I know you don’t want to put your shirt on, but if you choose to play with me, you choose to wear one.

Adam: Ran around me back to the play room anyway.

Me: Followed him in there. “Adam, I can tell that you want to play, but if you choose to play, you choose to wear a shirt. You can choose to wear the red one or the gray one.” (Mom had both with her to give him a choice.)

Adam: Grabbed several toys off of the shelf.

Me: “You are choosing to play, so you choose to put a shirt on. Which one do you choose?”

Adam: Ran to the other side of the room with toys in his hand and started playing with them on the table.

Me: “If you choose not to put a shirt on, you choose not to play today.”

Adam: Ignored me.

Me: “Okay, I see you’ve chosen not to play today.” (I also took the toys out of his hands.)

Adam: “Play.”

Me: “Oh, you realize that you would like to play, so which shirt do you choose. Red or gray?”

Adam: Pointed to the gray one.

Me: Helped him put it on in a fun way, making noises when his arms went through the holes. “You choose to play because you chose to wear a shirt!”

Play Therapy Principles

There were several elements to this process that are noteworthy to understand why this was significant. First, giving kids choices immediately reduces resistance and lessens objections to the desired behavior. When a child makes a decision, he feels a measure of control over the situation. Plus, if he makes the decision, there is buy-in so that he is more likely to follow through with the choice.

Second, the child learns the process of thinking through consequences. ‘If I choose to do this, then this is the result. If I choose this other option, this is the result.’ This awareness of outcomes helps them to make appropriate decisions both now and in the future.

Third, choice giving reinforces the idea of self-regulation. Most parents threaten when they are wanting compliance from a child. With choice giving, children are able to decide whether they choose to obey, or whether they choose not to. Parents are not enforcing appropriate behaviors, but rather letting the child experience that actions have consequences, for better or worse.




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