Homeschooling with an Oppositional Child

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Homeschooling has its good days and bad for anyone, but how do you homeschool a child who is difficult to convince of almost anything?  Do you have a child who is always right and can throw one unbelievable tantrum?  Many parents worry homeschooling oppositional kids just won’t work; or that they may lose their sanity in the process.  After all, you can’t teach if they won’t listen, right?

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I’ve walked this road myself and I promise you that you can do this.  Extra practice, patience and quick thinking on your part will get you there. Hear me out before you say, “Nope, no way, can’t do it.”

First, your child may not be behaving this way intentionally.

If a disorder is causing the intensity behind this behavior, it is important to remind yourself they may have little control over it naturally.  They will need an extra measure of grace from us on the days we can manage it.  Children with Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) or other similar disorders are just wired differently.  My youngest son is suspected to have ODD.  When he was not even 9 months old, he delighted in people’s anger or intense reactions.

He purposely went out of his way to do things I disapproved of, hoping to get a reaction out of me.  He would put rocks in his mouth because it scared me and it was a sure reaction.  If I tried to ignore him, he would be intentional about escalating the behavior.  9 months old is clearly too young for an average child to learn masterful manipulation; but there he was.  Everyone that knew him was blown away.  I forgot to mention – his first word was, “NO!”  Not just the word “no,” but it was shouted as he threw a bowl of food across the room.  First word moments… yay, let’s celebrate?

If their oppositional behavior is a result of a different type of special need they have, such as a learning disorder or Sensory Processing Disorder, they may just be overwhelmed with anxiety or frustration.  Think about something you struggle with and imagine your boss wants you doing lots of that.  Then remember that you have to do it well, quickly, and with a smile.  Some days it is just too much.  Have you had those moments where you dig your heels in and just refuse?  I have.  In the midst of homeschooling, these cases may just need a break or a routine change up!

Second, self-awareness is key

Often, our big reactions feed into the emotional frenzy.  As we become more self-aware, pumping the breaks becomes more of an instinct.  Think about the last big explosion you had with your defiant child.  You probably asked your child to do something little.  Next thing you know there is some back and forth with a side of disrespect.  You both start flinging proverbial mud before he stomps off crying, and you’re wondering, “What in the world just happened?”

When you start to feel things escalating, thinking, “Just do what I said already?,” close your eyes and take a deep breath.  Ask yourself what exactly is amping you up?  Afraid of losing control over the situation?  Worried about finishing your required number of homeschool days?  Feeling anxious that you’ll never be rid of the arguing?  Knowing why you are getting worked up gives you a chance to talk yourself back to reality, regaining control over what you are saying and doing.

If we, as adults, tend to lack self-awareness to some degree, imagine what it is like for them.  Walking them through this skill will serve you both.  Let’s say the stubbornness was in high gear today and an argument is spinning up.  Stop and ask yourself why are they behaving this way? Are they tired?  Afraid the work will take all night?  Maybe friends are playing outside without them?  Use this moment to bring your child back to reality too.  Label their feelings, which facilitates development of self-awareness.  If you’re wrong, they’re more likely to tell you (if they knows) than if you’re just asking an open-ended question.  Here’s an example: “I know you are worried about missing out on playing, but we will have plenty of time to play still if we finish our work now.  If they go inside before we’re done, they can come play for a bit here and have dinner with us.”

Third, personal responsibility and choices

Ever notice how some kids are quick to point out everything is your fault?  Don’t let that fly.  Our kids, special needs or not, need to understand that they create their own consequences with their actions.  They are no exception.  If your child is employed one day and has an un-preferred task assigned, what is going to happen? Either they ignore it and get fired, put it off and live irritably, or just do what the boss says and gain more influence.  The boss will not micro-manage or accept blame for the task not being done.  Neither should you.

After logically and calmly explaining why something must be done (or not done), give them control over what happens next.  Provide only two courses of action, framing them as a choice.  Highlight their personal responsibility for the consequences of their choice and be sure to follow through.

Example: “If you choose to cry and complain for another 20 minutes before doing your work, it will end up being too late to have them over at all.  It’s your choice what happens.  You do the work now and have them over, or you keep arguing and lose the time completely.  I am not going to choose for you.”

This is where it is good to have clear cut rules that are the same for everyone like, “No playing with friends until school work is done.”   Having clear cut rules makes it less about you having a momentary power struggle and more about what is simply their reality.  If they try to argue, calmly repeat yourself for as many times as it takes.  Arguing is pretty much a guarantee that things are going to spiral in the wrong direction.

Deep breaths, it’s do-able!

This, of course, takes practice.  Some days will be better than others, but keep trying!  Being aware that your child isn’t necessarily trying to drive you nuts is a comfort in itself.  Teaching them self-awareness and personal responsibility will serve you both extremely well now and into their future.  Consider using memorization or copywork of verses relating to these characteristics.  When the dust settles, gently reinforce all that was said, making sure they are seeing how they could have made their own life easier.

When I first started using this method of dealing with my defiant son, it was a struggle to quickly figure out how to re-frame the situation into a choice, but it was like exercising a muscle.  You can do this, and it will get easier to do!


Jill Camacho is a “Boymom” to two, special needs parent, and creator of social skills resources at Autism Homeschool Mama.  She’s on a mission to empower parents who wish to homeschool their special needs children!  You can connect with her on Facebook, Pinterest, or Instagram.

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