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Please Engage Brain Before Putting Mouth In Gear

The conversation goes something like this:

Mom: Could you please take out the trash?

Youth: Why do I have to do that? I did it last week.

Mom: You didn’t either.  I did it.  Now take the trash out. (Why did you take out the trash last week if it was his job?)

Youth: I have homework to do. (right…your child would rather do his homework than take out the trash? NOT)


Mom. You are now engaged in the same old argument. Disengage from the argument. You have told your child what to do and expect him to do it. If you negotiate at this point, you have handed him the remote control.

 My question to you: is this the hill you want to die on?  What are you willing to do now?  If taking out the trash every week is your child’s job, he needs to take out the trash unless he is in bed with a 101 degree fever or throwing up or at overnight camp.  Your child loves to argue about absolutely everything.  He does not let even THE smallest issue go by without arguing the point to exhaustion. He has become an In Your Face kind of kid, and it is wearing you out. What to do? What to do?

It really does not matter what the subject matter or what is asked of the child, some kids can’t pass up an opportunity to argue. The parents I work with are left scratching their heads. They wonder why their kid is so confrontational. Here are some theories that seem to make sense.

Attachment challenged kids have one thing in common, a lack of trust that their parents or the adults in their lives can adequately care for them. That means that the child must now take control and take care of themselves and everyone around them, including the parents who they perceive to be inept and deficient. All adults now fall into this category.

On the positive side, this is a great coping mechanism for the child who must remain in the horrible, neglectful, or abusive environment. These kids can often survive the most dire circumstances.

But . . . if Social Services rescues them from these homes and places them in foster care where they are well cared for, what do these controlling kids do now? I have never known a child to shrug off the mantle of control and say “Ok Mom, Dad, take the wheel here, I’m tired of driving the bus.” Just doesn’t happen, folks.

There is some medically based evidence that children who come from violent or abusive environments have higher than normal levels of cortisol¹. This is the chemical that triggers an increase in adrenaline. It is released when a person needs to engage the Fight, Flight, Freeze response that triggers survival behavior. If a child is in a dangerous or life threatening situation, cortisol is vital. It keeps the threatened child alert.  It can help her find a safer place by staying quiet or by running to safety or fighting the person harming her.   

Furthermore, significant research in human as well as animal research has found that while cortisol production is high, certain brain chemicals associated with human closeness and affection, parental touching, and holding are found to be greatly reduced in children who have experienced histories of chronic abuse or neglect ². Maltreated children have difficulty differentiating normal emotions like happy, sad, and fearful while showing increased arousal and attentiveness to perceived threats. ³.

What does this all mean? It means that all your good intentions and experience as a parent are only going to frustrate you more unless you can recognize and deal with the argumentative child differently than you do your other children.  This child is wired differently. He has some different neurochemicals that are creating stress, both for your child and for you.

 Let’s face it. Your foster or adopted child may be walking around feeling angry, frustrated, uncared about, lonely, or just wanting things his own way. When you get to the point where you believe he just needs a knock in the head or an attitude adjustment, consider that he may need a psychiatric evaluation that measures his levels of cortisol, and other brain chemicals (such as his serotonin,  vasopressin and oxytocin.)

When there is too much cortisol running through the limbic or emotional center of his brain, he may not have the ability to put his brain in gear before engaging his mouth. That’s because the thinking portions of his brain, his prefrontal and frontal lobes cannot function at their maximum capacity.

Okay, you say. So now that I know all that, how do I make him stop arguing about everything?

  • ·         Put up your hand and say, “I have told you what I need you to do. Arguing with me will not be necessary. I expect you to do it now. Just say, yes ma’am.” Not engaging will help a lot
  • ·         I have used humor to remind myself not to engage. Try: “this seems to be where you start to argue with me.  You have 1 minutes to give me all the reasons you can’t or won’t do XXX. When the timer goes off, stop talking and go do it. Now say, Yes ma’am”. If you tell them to argue, it takes the fun out of it.
  • ·         Have the argument for them. Turn it around and you argue their side of it. It can work in your favor if not overdone. 
  • ·         Put yourself in time out for 10 minutes.  When you don’t engage with them, they can’t rev up the cortisol.
  • ·         Say a simple thank you when they don’t engage in an argument where you think they previously would have.

And remember, above all  If you don’t ENGAGE YOUR BRAIN BEFORE PUTTING MOUTH IN GEAR, your child certainly won’t.

¹.  Sanchez, 2001

². Wismer et al, 2005

³. Wismer and Pollack, 2004



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