“You can’t make me wear a mask!”

Oppositional behavior in children AND adults

So I’m wearing a mask in my office full-time at this point and have been for about a month. We had our own COVID19 scare in my family as the cases were climbing in my home state. Although the test itself was not exactly enjoyable, the wait from testing to results for me and my family member was worse.

I don’t want anyone else to have to go through testing and waiting and worrying, especially if me wearing a mask can help.

That is how I think … but then there are others, the anti-maskers.

Now mind you, I have some folks that cannot wear a mask because it triggers a panic attack. There are others who have experienced specific traumas that mean that they were held down, choked, or nearly suffocated or drowned. Even though rationally they know that they are getting enough oxygen and can breathe with a mask, the sensation of breathing their own warm breath or having something over their face is a trigger for flashbacks and re-experiencing the trauma again.

I get it. If a mask triggers you, please do what helps you stay safe and whole. You are not an anti-masker.

But then there is the “You can’t make me” crowd. That’s different.

I should say at the outset that as a therapist who works with both children and adults, I love oppositional children. As I look back at my own childhood, I think I could be fairly oppositional at times.

Even now, I continue to question the conventional wisdom, to poke around a bit to see if there is an alternative answer or another option. I tend to think a bit differently than those around me and seem to always have.

Yet many children who are labeled “oppositional” do not necessarily meet the criteria for a diagnosis. This child may be reaching for a sort of order or control in a situation that feels chaotic to them.

When you step back and look at this “oppositional” child in context, yes, this child may be frustrating, but that behavior is serving a purpose, as all behavior does.

When we grow up in chaos, we seek control.

As human beings, we all have a need for predictability and control. Some of us grow up in situations where there are frequent changes in housing or parents who are perpetually arguing. We all need a stable, solid roof over our heads. And when that “roof” hovers over a pair of arguing adults or that “roof” isn’t even the same roof from month to month, then a child has a hard time feeling safe.

Adults crave this sort of stability too. When our political systems consist of arguing instead of policy-making, we move into a very “all or nothing, either/or” space. In that space there is no room for compromise; there are only extremes. These extremes of right/wrong can give us what feels like control.

When we grow up with no rules, we get angry at rules.

Rules are important. And once you know the rules, then you can enjoy playing the game. Again, think about how you felt as a child.

We all go through a stage where if someone cheats, then it is “not fair”. We become the “rule police” when it comes to fouls at the basketball goal in someone’s driveway or who gets the next turn on the seesaw on the playground.

Rules matter. They keep order. A good set of rules makes the game playable.

But when the adults flout the rules or “norms”, then we all feel as if there is no point to the game. “Nothing matters anyway.”

Yet our political system and the way we relate to each other is not a game. Our ability to function as a society is life or death … and right now, there is a lot of death.

So how do people respond when you continue to set arbitrary rules? How do people respond when there is a rule but someone continues to break it … willfully?

People get angry. This looks pretty oppositional, but remember that the behavior is serving a purpose.

Oppositional behavior reveals the broken system.

When the adults/authorities we’ve known are unreliable, we have a hard time trusting any adult or authority.

This distrust moves from the specifics of a family to a more general mistrust of everyone. Thinking back to children, they need to be able to trust an adult to do what they say, whether that is a threat or a promise.

If you continually say that you are going to do something and you don’t, then your child learns not to trust you.

Then … when you “suddenly” follow through on that promise or threat, your child is going to be surprised and then angry.

This may be the first time an adult has actually done what they said they would do … either positively or negatively.

We currently have a cadre of adults who do not trust what any authority says … even if that authority has a degree in epidemiology and decades of experience.

Worse yet, in a desire to have some sort of stable authority, many of these adults are reaching out for the loudest and angriest voices that match the pain that they feel. This is a pain that is born out of fear, of those feelings of impending chaos, of the ways in which they feel that the rules don’t work for them.

So how do we work with oppositional children/adults?

Remember that this “oppositional behavior” is born out of fear and a need for control. Don’t focus on the behavior itself, but attempt to understand what is behind the behavior.

Acknowledge that this is a scary time for everyone, even if you are not scared for the same reasons.

Try to start in a place of mutual respect and relationship, building trust and reliability and accountability.

Even if we disagree, we have to still “show up” and be present. When we set a “rule”, we have to follow it (which also means being careful about the rules that we set).

All of this is with the goal of creating a more stable system for those who have a history of instability or are currently experiencing instability.

More stable systems are ones where children (and adults) can feel safe to explore, to learn, to create and do business. Without that ground of safety, it is hard to relate to each other in a way that builds trust and community.

So for a while, I’m going to wear a mask. I hope that you will too.

From the trusted adults that I read, most agree that while a mask is not 100 percent effective, it goes a long way to protect other people. Since I have some people that are vulnerable, and I care about them and about you, I’m going to wear a mask.

“I care about you and the people that I see; so that’s why I’m wearing this mask.”

Some people will still be oppositional. But maybe that’s why they are in my office to begin with: to work on the tougher places in our history and to fashion some safer places to live and work and play.

clinical social worker, spiritual director, author, husband, father, son, runner in Georgia, co-author of When Anxiety Strikes from Kregel Publications.

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