Dr. James Sutton, a consulting psychologist and authority on oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and long-time friend, wrote me the following:
Marv, I loved the story about the girl, the newcomer, who refused to make her bed (a story I had previously told). To me, this is about fear of new situations and circumstances, a feeling of being terribly vulnerable, rather than a really deep defiant stand.
I’ve seen it with adults coming into drug and alcohol treatment. When they are terrified of being thrust into a new and semi-threatening situation, their response is almost always one of anger. Although this anger is generally directed at the closest authority figure, it’s not really personal, but it can sure LOOK that way.
Coming down hard on either an adult or child in these circumstances causes them to verify to themselves that their defiance is, indeed, justified. Result: more defiance and more problems—not less.
I still very vividly remember a burly, muscular man coming into drug and alcohol treatment. He walked into his counselor’s office screaming, “I ain’t got no sheets!” His counselor simply said, “What’s the matter, really,” and the man broke down and sobbed like a baby. I watched that counselor put his arms around him and hug him like a small child. End of conflict.
Sometimes we need to get past the sheets.
I responded to Jim:
Your take on the story is really appreciated. It gives reinforcement to the advice I often give teachers, viz., ask the student, “Are you angry at me or the situation?”
It is possible for an angry child to say he is angry at the teacher—even when the youngster is not. It sometimes is better not to say much at all to the child who is upset (initially) as ANY requirement of a verbal response might not produce the results desired. When a child (really, anyone) is upset, it is best not to press for too much information.