This article is under construction. It is intended to provide some practical tips on how to deal with argumentative children and youth. For kids who are “out of control”, being clever can become a habitual self-defense. If the cleverness gets the better of the adults, the result can be quite frightening to the child: the adult obviously does not have the ego strength to deal with the childish impulses. This article depicts some common scenarios with defiant youngsters, with quick and effective responses to move the conversation forward, or at least not let it get stuck in the lowest common denominator. (I have heard from many parents, including professional parents, who have bemoaned arguing endlessly with their child until 3 a.m.)
Dealing with Attacks: A Taxonomy of Responses
This is an elaboration on a perspective articulated by Donald T. Saposnek (“Aikido: A Systems Model for Maneuvering in Mediation”, in Applying Family Therapy Perspectives to Mediation, Mediation Quarterly, no. 14/15, Jossey-Bass 1987, pp. 119-136). Starting with the gold standard, aikido, which I am presenting as a metaphor for creative problem solving:
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From these lofty heights let us start from the bottom of conventionally trained fighters, moving from problem solving, to surprise problem solving, and to creative problem solving.
Problem Solving is like boxing: it uses conventional skills and delivers a range of moves that a good boxer learns how to anticipate.
Surprise Problem Solving is like karate or judo: uses unexpected moves to gain the element of surprise (e.g. the confusion technique to lead the opponent’s attention in the wrong direction). Mohammed Ali used surprise in many ways, from psyching out his opponent before the match, taunting his opponent in the ring, by “floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee”, to “rope-a-dope” wearing out his opponent in the long term to get the knockout at the end.
Creative Problem Solving is like aikido: unexpected moves to gain the element of harmony (joining with the opponent’s energy while blocking his attempted solution). Here the goal is not to defeat the opponent, but to convert him.
Framing, Re-Framing, Double-Framing
Here are some general techniques, elaborated from Problem Solving Therapy (Haley):
Framing and Reframing: Taking an assumption and putting it into a new cognitive/perceptual light (e.g. renaming stubborn as persistent).
Double-Framing: Taking both sides of a frame/reframe to mirror ambivalence (“So is this an instance of stubbornness or persistence? Maybe if he had done it this way it would be perceived as persistence, but when he dug in his heels and started swearing rather taking a break before addressing it again, he earned his reputation. On the other hand…”). This is a variation on Motivational Interviewing where the client’s ambivalence is reflected by the therapist.
Resources as Natural Reframers: Introducing a new person into a system naturally unbalances and rebalances the system into a new homeostasis. Arranging to reduce Interference and obstacles while including advocates, mentors and non-human resources. This helps to socialize the problem, making the problem more common and accepted as changeable. This is commonly used in Restorative Justice programs.
Now from the general to the specific: How to avoid getting caught in ridiculous arguments with bratty children.
2 main variants (initial volleys):
“You can’t make me!” Response: “Duh!”
“You can’t tell me what to do! ” Response: “But you can tell me what to do?” (Said with that world weary look that conveys adulthood, and if technically necessary, knowledge of the 1st Amendment).
“I didn’t do it and you can’t prove it!” (Otherwise know as the Calvin — of Calvin & Hobbes — Legal Defense Method). Response: “Our family/classroom is not a court of law.”
Now that we have dealt with the immediate, acute annoyances of bratty behavior, let’s make sure to have effective ways of deflecting, decreasing and eliminating the chronic brattiness.
A common tactic of the bully is to insult people, and to double-punch when challenged: “That was a joke. Can’t you take a joke?”
Response: “That wasn’t a joke, that was an insult” (Do not get in their face, but do make it clear that you are being vigilant about making sure they cease and desist — stick to your guns on this one). Adults often find themselves in this situation when interfering with a child bullying another child (if they start doing this with their teachers or parents, especially to shame them in public, you know you have a real problem). In that situation, the tactic is used to “pin down” the offender so that the victim can get clean away.
Another way to deflect a lame argument is to engage in an argument with yourself in front of the child (more for older snide teens than younger children, especially ones who get “technical”). This helps demonstrate the ridiculousness of the argument without directly criticizing the teen, who can better see the humor in the situation when it is presented without his direct participation in the argument. Acting like your left hand is a talking skull helps set the dramatic/parodic stage (like Hamlet, only lamer!). Another way to do this is to enlist a team member to debate the ambivalence with you — you have to have a good joking partnership with your team member to be good at this!
An example of this kind of approach:
I was a new social work intern at a VA methadone clinic in the 1980’s. It was my first day to co-lead a men’s problem-solving group with my placement supervisor. The heroin addicted Vietnam vets were used to some pretty crude language and had driven out a female psychologist the month prior to my arrival. In the midst of my first session there my supervisor had to leave the session for a while. During his absence the guys got talking and one of them, pulling out his hunting knife and cleaning out under his fingernails with it, starting to talk out loud about what he could do with his knife to my testicles. At the end of this brief but thorough description, he looked up at me and said, “I’m just joking. Don’t take me seriously.”
My first reply was “Maybe I will.”
This caused a brief gasp among the group. After a pause, I continued:
“And maybe I won’t.”
A general sigh of relief was followed by some good humored conversation, with the general message being “we can work with this guy.”
So I didn’t tell him he was insulting me rather than joking with me, but I did argue with myself (lackadaisically, but distinctly) in front of the “joker.” And he got it (my joke, that is).
Another common tactic of the bully is to generate and enforce the idea that they are the most popular among their peers, have defenders in high places, and create the impression that to challenge them will result in mob retaliation. Here we have the relationship of the intimidator and the timid. Like the domestic abuser, they try to control the victims social relations and keep them isolated from those who could help them.
I take a two pronged approach to this kind of problem (such as at a middle school, where much of this begins). One important approach is to provide support to the timid ones, who are generally neglected because they don’t cause problems. If they don’t talk among themselves, they often misinterpret each others response to the bully. For instance, if the “class clown” (not the good hearted joker, but the malicious type) insults the teacher or another student, it is common for timid people to giggle out of nervousness. When another timid student hears this response, they often misinterpret it as thinking the joker is “cool, funny.” But if you interview the timid ones separately, they will tell you that even though others think the joker is cool, they think he’s a fool. When you get the timid ones together and they express these perspectives, the light goes on and they become fast allies. So much for the bully’s divide and conquer.
The other approach is to counter the personal power of the bully with the institutional power of restorative justice. First of all, you need to make sure you have all the significant adults aligned — in this case, teachers, principals, and parents (librarians and custodians can be important players as well). [For examples of girls bullying, and the problems that develop when parents cover for their darlings, read Queen Bees and Wannabes and Queen Bee Moms and Kingpin Dads by Rosalind Wiseman.] My approach is to begin by confronting the reputation of the bully. It usually goes like this:
Me: You have the reputation of a bully.
Bully: No I don’t.
Me: Yes you do.
Bully: No I don’t.
Me: You don’t determine your reputation. Others do, and they know you as a bully.
Bully: Says who?!
Me: Who is for us to know and you to find out. But you can change your reputation by establishing a new reputation that counters the old one. We can help you do that, but if you don’t cooperate, your bullying will not bring you fun and excitement, but boredom and tedium. What we are ready to do is help you learn how to have fun and excitement in acceptable ways.
A note on the process here: people don’t change their view of a person with a bad reputation just because they do a few things different. The offender will need to “over-correct” in order to be believed that he has turned a new leaf.
A nightmarish example of this is with the 2016 presidential campaign. Pundits kept waiting and watching for Trump to pivot to a more presidential demeanor, but his reputation is too well established for normal people to believe that any temporary shift in behavior was going to mean a long-term change in behavior. But the difference between the primary campaign and the presidential campaign is that Trump got Jeb Bush to flinch in the primary debates — when he tried to do the same to Hillary, she laughed at him. It was clear that no normal person was going to think of him as strong or funny or cool in the face of her response — any normal person could clearly see that he was a fool, and a nasty one at that. [Unfortunately, as it turned out, even though Trump was not able to bully Hillary in the debates, he did successfuly smear her in the media, allowing him to win the electoral college even though he lost the popular vote. Dirty tricks that should not be successful in a middle school peer group were made to succeed on a national scale.]
From here I refer the reader to my article on impulse control training on this website.
“Why Not?”: The Existential Question
When Victor Frankl was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp but was able to do group therapy sessions due to his status as a doctor, he could tell that some members were losing their will to live. [After the war Frankl set up the German system of suicide hot-lines, so he had both an immediate and a long-term interest in helping suicidal patients.] Since many suicidal people are evasive on the topic, Frankl found the best way to assess for suicidality is to ask “Why not commit suicide?” [Patients are more used to answering questions like “Are you thinking of suicide” and “why would you commit suicide”, where it is easy to come up with a “cover story” and rationalization (counselors are supposed to counsel you that you have reasons to live and try to convince you not to commit suicide).] The “why not” question elicits reasons for continuing to live, or not. It makes the interviewee think on their toes rather than produce a prepared answer.
The surprise element of the “why not” question has come in handy at various times in my life, most notably to get a stolen bicycle returned. In my young adulthood I borrowed my work supervisor’s bicycle so that my wife could use it to ride to work at a convalescent home. It was stolen from the home and some of the workers expressed suspicions about a graveyard shift worker who was suspected of stealing drugs. We went over to the young woman’s residence, noting that it was chock full of various items (probably ready to fence). I explained the situation to the woman, with emphasis on my wife’s need for transportation, and that we couldn’t afford to buy another bicycle for my supervisor. When she said that she hadn’t taken the bicycle, I asked “Why not?” She sputtered a bit, trying to figure out how to respond, and finally said “Because I already have one.” Well, I knew she had tipped her hand (an honest person would say “because I don’t steal”), so before departing I said “It would be nice if the bicycle showed up somewhere.” In a couple days the bicycle appeared behind the convalescent facility and the woman disappeared, never to return to that job.
Psst! Act Your Age
A generally effective approach to bratty behavior is to convey age-appropriate expectations (implying that the bratty behavior is indeed immature). You want to do this in ways that do not humiliate the offender or back him into a corner. You want to welcome the friendly youngster while showing the bratty behavior the door (love the sinner, correct the sin).
In group settings with older siblings, the older sibling can be enlisted as an experienced mentor to the younger kids. This can be set up at the beginning or at the first signs of bratty behavior. The approach here is to point out to the older sib that the younger sib seems to need help acting his age and could use help acting appropriately. Commonly the older sib will straighten her back, click her heels, salute, and say “Sure thing!” (Well, it may not be that easy, but with an engaging manner that gets down to their level while the twinkle in your eye promises fun in the process, it works quite well with a high rate of success according to my own and other caregivers I have spoken with). [I recently helped a grandmother get her three grandkids out of the hairdresser’s — they were dawdling — by slyly suggesting to the oldest girl that as the oldest, she should lead the parade out, with grandma heading up the rear. The girl readily took up my suggestion, and grandma gave me a high five on the way out!]
Miss Manners advises parents to develop an in-public private communication with their children called “the look.” When children get “the look” they know immediately that the parent wishes them to cease and desist from any inappropriate or unacceptable behaviors — it says “I will keep quiet for now, but you will hear of this later.” If it is not your own child it can be tricky, especially if the child’s parent is present but does not check their child.
I have at various times intervened “in locus parentis” when an unsupervised child was acting unacceptably. I was once on a public bus where an older child was tormenting a younger child. Other passengers were aware of the abuse occurring but were not intervening. Instead of getting into a verbal confrontation with the boy, I moved to sit right next to him, cutting off his access to the younger boy. The crowd held their breath. The younger boy moved away and got off at the next stop. I leaned over with my hand cupped over my mouth to issue a private message to the offender: “You’re making a fool of yourself.” The boy was quiet for a bit and then said: “He told me to do it!” Well, we all know this one, so I gave him a version of the If Someone Told You To Walk Off A Cliff saying, but more specifically “So you’re going to do something stupid because a young kid tells you to?” The rest of the ride was held in silence until the boy got off at his stop.
Bratty adolescent behavior can often be addressed by finding the correct childish equivalent of the youth’s behavior (e.g. temper tantrum, sulking, etc.) and asking what age of child does one expect such behavior from. Tantrums are for terrible twos, sulking is for sucky sixes (or something like that). The question can also be considered in small groups, but care should be made to not gang up on the immature offender nor to humiliate him in front of others.
General Considerations on Creative Problem Solving
Creative problem solving is like catching a wave — timing and orientation are everything. If you have no hope, you won’t even go out into the water to catch a wave. But one can also flub the timing. If we get there too soon, there isn’t enough wave to catch, and we are “under-whelmed.” If we get there too late, the wave crashes on us, and we get “over-whelmed.”
Catching opportunities involves moving to the wave at the right time and turning with it to let it take you away. What does this mean in terms of our mental state and our ability to creatively solve problems?
Mary Rose Wood, author of the Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series, has her protagonist Penelope Lumly ponder when she gets excited about a prospect whether she is being “optoomuchistic” (meaning she is getting carried away with her heightened expectations and risks being thrown into despair by the realities she is over-looking). Pointing out that one can be too optimistic implies that generally optimism is a good thing as long as it proceeds with some caution.
So how does one avoid being optoomuchistic? By keeping your hopes up but keeping your expectations low. The way to latch on to an opportunity in the moment is to grab onto it by lowering your hopes down from above and raising your expectations from below and, like pinchers, to make the most secure grasp on the opportunity (but don’t pinch or crush it!). That way you can ride the wave of reality without crashing from optoomuchism.
Creative problem solving is also adept at knowing when to apply a literal solution and when to use metaphorical means. The following description of how LSD helped scientists and inventors become more creative in solving their complex problems speaks to questions of metaphorical meaning and pattern recognition:
The fact that, in almost every case, in a carefully controlled, safe environment, subjects were able to make significant progress and in many cases full solutions was remarkable at the time. No one quite believed that people would focus away from their own personal experience and work entirely on external problems. The relationship now is clear: psychedelics, using a moderate dose, with highly motivated individuals, allows people to utilize their expanded awareness, their enhanced capacity for pattern recognition, visual and metaphoric thinking, plus their increased ideational flexibility for breakthrough solutions.
From “An Interview with James Fadiman: Creativity, Problem Solving,and Psychedelics” in Frontiers of Psychedelic Consciousness: Conversations with Albert Hoffman, Stanislav Grof, James Fadiman and Others. David Jay Brown, Park Street Press, 2015, pp. 49-50.
[No, I am not suggesting that parents take LSD to solve their problems with their children. Lighten up!]