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Does using reverse psychology send your child mixed messages?

Father And Daughter Yelling - Parents Canada


My son Jake was an ultra-picky eater. One night as I was about to abandon all hope of him ever ingesting any real food, my husband got a playful gleam in his eye and said: “You’re right, Jake. You don’t want to eat spaghetti. It will make spikes grow out of your back like a dinosaur! Then your shirts won’t fit anymore. Definitely do not eat it.”

Predictably, Jake relished the chance to do the exact opposite of his dad’s instructions, and we all played along reacting as if he was morphing into a stegosaurus. Spaghetti was Jake’s favourite meal for weeks. Thank you, reverse psychology.

Adrian Chan, a father of four from Ottawa, admits that he has employed similar tactics at the dinner table. “While I insist that the broccoli on my plate is mine, the kids gang up on me to try to steal it,” he says. “I’ll hold the piece away from one child, but another will grab it and victoriously eat it. It’s  like an old-fashioned slapstick comedy routine.”

There are also times where the kids turn the tables on him: “When they’re done their meal, they announce that they refuse to finish eating their food. They love it when I sternly insist that they do, then pick up their plates and act shocked that they are empty.”

Reverse psychology works especially well with toddlers, since this age group seems to instinctively enjoy doing things that go against their parents’ wishes.

“Toddlers are beginning to explore their sense of independence,” says Chastity Plamondon, an Early Childhood Mental Health Consultant at the East Calgary Health Centre, and mother of two. “Using reverse psychology as a means to achieve compliance can sometimes allow a child to feel as though he is in charge.”

When to use it

Still, is it wrong to leverage this idea and encourage our kids to “disobey” us? Are we teaching them that it’s good to be bad? Says Chastity, “Reverse psychology that is used infrequently, with kindness and lightheartedness, is unlikely to be harmful to a child, provided it does not progress to manipulation or shaming.”

Adrian says that when he uses reverse psychology, it is intended to be humourous and non-threatening. “Usually, it’s a way to let the kids feel that they are outsmarting me,” he says. He gives the example of helping one of his daughters into her car seat and asking the younger one to wait, along with an elaborate explanation about how she really needs a lot of help. “Of course, once I get to her, she is magically in her car seat and all buckled in,” Adrian says. “As I tighten the straps, I ask her how this could have happened. She smiles knowingly and tells me that Mom did it, even if my wife is not close by.”

As with any parenting technique, choosing the right moment is critical. If you’re on edge or in a rush, reverse psychology may cause confusion and add to the tension.

“If a parent is feeling stressed and taxed in the interaction, so is the child,” says Chastity. “Children generally want to please their parent, and enjoy peaceful relationships much more than conflictual ones.”

Treat reverse psychology as a good natured game, and be prepared to abandon it if your child isn’t ready to play along. Most importantly, celebrate the positive end result that comes from it. The happy payoff may be that your child discovers that he or she can perform the task independently, or – in Jake’s case – that spaghetti actually tastes pretty good.

And the award goes to…

A little theatricality definitely helps to “sell” a reverse psychology scenario. While my acting skills are limited, the “skits” I spontaneously invented with my son Jake motivated him to cooperate with the task at hand. He gets such a kick out of our “comedy sketches” that sometimes he will even request them: “Mom, can we do the thing where you pretend I can’t do it?” I guess he wants in on the act, too. Here are some examples of what works in our home:

Getting dressed

If it’s time for him to put on his clothes, hat, jacket, or footwear, I start lecturing an invisible audience: “Look, everyone, there’s no way Jake can put on his own stuff. I am going to have to help him, because he’s just a little kid…” Meanwhile, he scrambles gleefully in the background to prove me wrong. When I turn back to him for the “big reveal,” he is fully dressed and grinning triumphantly. End scene.

Getting somewhere on time

Another classic script: we need to pick up his older sibling from school and Jake is dragging his feet on the walk. To speed things up, I start slowly wandering away, proclaiming, “Good thing I know where we’re going… yep, it’s definitely this way… here I go.” Sure, I look ridiculous walking up a stranger’s driveway next to the path to the schoolyard, but it’s worth it when Jake takes off running and corrects me with delight: “No, this way! I will show you!” – Kristi York

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, April/May 2016.

a man carrying two children

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