So ...My Child is Demonstrating Oppositional Behaviour –
Is it a Reaction to Their Environment?
Sometimes no matter how much we try and encourage positive behaviour in children and model appropriate behaviour for them, there are moments when a child expresses defiant or oppositional behaviour. The initial reaction is often to tell the child the behaviour is inappropriate and correct it, but it is more important to try to understand what triggered the oppositional behaviour and how the child processed the situation which led to that behaviour. Although the behaviour may concern us or we may even feel embarrassed if the oppositional behaviour occurred in public, it is important to understand that often oppositional behavioural is the result of deficits in encoding cues from the environment or in misinterpreting the affective state of others or the intent of others in their environment.How does this happen?
For every reaction or behavioural response we elicit to an event, there is a neural (central nervous system) basis that processes and interprets (in brain) the initial environment. Our brain encodes the information presented to us, interprets it, and then that interpretation will dictate how we choose to respond to the initial information. The process of encoding, interpreting, and responding to environmental information and social interactions is directed by our brain, specifically in the limbic system and the frontal cortex. These two regions of the brain are responsible for our affective states and emotional responses to information, as well as directing our decision-making processes and actions. It is the integrative functioning of the amygdala, caudate nucleus, and prefrontal cortex that consistently direct and manage our emotional responses and actions to events in the world, and any disruption or errors in exchanging information within this system often leads to disruptive behaviour (Marsh et al., 2008; Finger et al., 2000). In social interactions, we must be able to correctly infer emotions of others to respond appropriately. So when our child displays oppositional behaviour, it could be a result of them not accurately interpreting the affective states of others, whether it was from our tone in our voice when speaking to them or from correctly interpreting our nonverbal cues such as body language. Another possibility that led to the oppositional behaviour could be their expression of frustration from responding to an event believing it was appropriate, but then not receiving the positive reinforcement from the interaction they expected. This is a result of a deficit in their encoding, so the perception of the emotion or the event is distorted when interpreting it, and they act out inappropriately in that given situation (Cadesky et al., 2000). Both of these situations are frustrating for both the child exhibiting the oppositional behaviour and the parent or peer interacting with the oppositional child – both have a goal of experiencing a positive interaction, but the unique neural basis of the oppositional child is making the communication process difficult and frustrating, causing disruptive behaviours.
So if the child is exhibiting oppositional behaviour, is there any way it can change to positive behaviour? The simple answer is yes, with consistency and patience, the oppositional behaviours can be reduced and even be replaced with appropriate behavioural responses. The way to change the behaviour is to adapt our interactions with the child to cause brain-based changes in their neurochemistry. Since disruptive behaviours are often a result of less responsiveness from the integrated system of the amygdala, caudate, and prefrontal cortex, interactions in the social world and environment must consistently stimulate the child to fulfill the need for reinforcement when positive reactions occur (Marsh et al., 2008; Finger et al., 2000). Fulfilling the positive reinforcement needed for behaviour will assist in reinforcing the interpretations that led to preferred behavioural outcomes, and thereby reduce the frequency of oppositional behaviours and unemotional traits such as reduced empathy and unemotional responses. Every child likes to know when they have done something that makes us happy, and every child likes to know they are improving their relationships with their friends and family. It’s interesting to know that every emotional response we have to a given interaction has a neural basis and that with effective intervention we can adapt our reactions to lead to more positive relationships.
written by Orla Tyrrell, Special Needs Supervisor and SPP Facilitator, BODiWORKS Institute