children with autism

Children with Autism: How to Handle Stubbornness and Negativity

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It can be immensely frustrating dealing with a stubborn or negative child. Children with special needs prevent a unique challenge, since their delays often make it harder for them to understand another person’s point of view.

Add to the picture language delays, an inability to predict consequences, and an unawareness of time, and you’re pretty much guaranteed your share of friendly fire.

A certain amount of stubbornness is normal for all children. For your special needs child, however, stubbornness and negativity are actually a good sign. First of all, they show that your child sees himself as separate from you, and is trying to determine who he is. It also shows that your child recognizes that his behavior can have an impact on the world around him, which is a critical step in learning how to navigate the social world around him.

It’s can be easy to respond to negativity by clamping down and imposing your will, especially if you’re short on time or caught in an embarrassing situation. However, if you can manage to use his defiance to draw him into conversation and interaction, you’ll not only strengthen his sense of self, but you’ll get a better response in the end.

Here are several tips on what you can do when you find yourself at odds with your special needs child:

1. Give humor a chance.

It’s sometimes surprising how a throwing in a little bit of humor can breakup gridlock. If your child is insistent on going without a coat in the dead of winter, try putting on their coat yourself. Be dramatic, exaggerating your expressions as you try to fit your grown up size body in your child’s Lilliputian-sized coat. If they refuse to put away their toys, pretend the toys are crying because they want to be put away.

2. Play dumb.

Gently push your child to express themselves by pretending you don’t understand what they want. If your child insists, for example, that she wants soda, look confused and point to the milk or the juice. The idea here is that you want to engage your child in the back and forth of communication.

Since communication can be with words or with gestures, even if your child’s entire rebellion consists of pouts, foot stomping, or angry faces, they will have learned one of the basic rules of communication: If you talk, I respond, and if I talk, you will respond.  Doing this with children who are verbal can sometimes distract them from the argument at hand, defusing the situation.

3. Take things one step at a time.

There are certain times when your child can be especially negative or stubborn. Instead of tackling everything at once, focus on one situation at a time. For example, if your child resists your help at every opportunity, insisting on doing everything on her own even though she’s not yet capable, try choosing one specific instance – such as letting her make her lunch- and working on that first.

You don’t always have to agree with her ideas, but many times when children see you are willing to give things a try, they are more agreeable to a few suggestions from you (like cutting their sandwich with a butter knife instead of the steak knife).

4. Empathize soothingly when you have to put your foot down.

Sometimes your child can’t have his way. When this happens, try and show your child how much you sympathize with them. Even if they have trouble understanding you, they will pick up your intent through your body language. If things get out of hand, reassure them with a big hug, holding them if necessary.

Many children with special needs will often need extra time to settle down after a tantrum; let them have it, and then try and spend a bit of cuddly time with them afterwards.

Use these tips on a consistent basis, and you'll be on your way not only to gaining your child's cooperation, but to a happier, more self-confident child.

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  • […] parents can feel helpless, and feel as if their child has ‘won’, and they have ‘lost’. In this article Children with Autism: How to Handle Stubbornness and Negativity, I found great tips that give parents useful […]

  • hidayani Aug 9,2012 at 4:48 am

    thanks for the information…….that would be very helpful for mother like me…with a daughter who always throw tantrums..

  • Shannon Adams Apr 25,2012 at 6:19 am

    My son is in the fifth grade and the stubborness and negativity have just gotten increasingly worse. He refuses to do any work in school unless someone walks him through every step. He is belligerent and aggressive and he is quite big so his aggression is a huge concern. He says he isnt smart and his brainis wrong. What do i or his teachers do?

  • […] It can be immensely frustrating dealing with a stubborn or negative child. Children with special nee… […]

  • Rachel Feb 1,2012 at 9:59 pm

    Thanks for stopping by Kathy! I know what you mean: just when you think you’ve finally understand your child, they up and change again.
    There are some common reasons why kids develop these behaviors suddenly. Here are a few:

    1) Developmental jump- All children go through cycles of growth and regression; the “terrible two’s” and the “wild four’s” are good examples of what some experts call periods of disintegration. Basically, it means that before your child can grow emotionally, they fall apart for a while. With kids who have special needs, those falling apart times are deeper and more intense.

    2) Environmental stress- This could be a new expectation that your child is dealing with, like starting a different school, being toilet trained, or getting a new teacher. Or it could be related to sensory issues: children on the spectrum struggle with sensory overload, but the amount of overload can differ from day to day.

    Think of your child’s ability to handle stress like a cup. Some days your child is more stressed out, so the “cup” gets filled more rapidly than other days. Then all of a sudden it overflows, and you’re left thinking: “But yesterday she didn’t mind that!” That’s because yesterday her cup didn’t fill as rapidly, and she could be more flexible about things.

    Stubborness and negativity is usually your child’s reaction to feeling powerless and out of control. She feels a burning need to stand ground, or else she risks losing control, or being exposed to situations (or feelings) she can’t deal with. I suppose this is true of plenty of people, not just kids on the spectrum..

    As for how to handle it, I think this would make a great post. I will try and put up a post about this next week. I’ll e-mail everyone on the list when it’s put up, so keep an eye out. Thanks for commenting!

  • Kathy Roman Feb 1,2012 at 3:51 am

    I appreciated all the information because a child has so many different and they suddenly develop behaviors that you do not know how to handle it. This website could help me in simple ways how to cope some of them.


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