As a parent, educator, clinician, etc. who works with children you have experienced telling a child to do something and the child will argue back with you. What was your reaction? Did you try to reason with them? Do you get mad? Do you continue the argument? Do you give in after getting tired of argument? 

As a behavior analyst, I have observed this situation multiple times where an adult tells a child the need to do something, and the child responds with “no” or argues with them. The majority of the time, the adult will continue the argument or conversation with the child. I believe as an adult; we feel the need to have control over the situation by continuing with the argument until the child agrees what we said. 

Now on the child side of the situation the reason to argue with the parent occurs for a few reasons but the majority of the time the child will argue to escape what they have been told them they need to do. The child has learned if they can get the adult to continue with the argument there is a higher chance, they can escape the task or maybe at least prolong the start of the task. For someone children, they may like the attention they get from arguing with the adult so will seek out the argument. When an argument occurs, I encourage adults to stop and think, “why is the child arguing and not doing what I said? How can I respond not to reward the arguing?” 

What I recommend for children who try to argue with adults: 

  1. Try to prevent the argument from occurring in the first place. Set a schedule for when the child needs to do something, they don’t like doing to it becomes more routine. Also, you can schedule a more preferred activity after they complete the difficult task. An example would be first the child clean up their room every day at the same, and then they can watch T.V.  If a child is engaged in an activity to try to give warnings when they need to stop or try to let them finish the activity. An example would be if the child is almost done with a puzzle and you tell them “When you finish the puzzle, it will be time to brush teeth.” 

  2. Give directions as a statement and not a question unless you want it to be an option. So instead of saying, “Can you please clean up your toys?” say “Time to clean up your toys.” 

  3. If the child argues with you, give them the directions again in a calm tone and then stop talking to them about it.  You don’t have to have the last word with your child.  There is power in giving directions and then walking away. If you do walk away, return to the child after a minute to see if they started. 

  4. Follow through with what you need them to do. If you told them to clean up toys left, don’t allow them to play with more toys, don’t allow them to leave the area, etc.  

  5. When the child begins to complete the task, you give attention and specific praise. You can say something like “Thank so much for cleaning up the toys so nicely!”  If they do what you need, they do allow them access to a preferred activity afterward is possible. 

Just remember when faced with a child who is arguing with you, You Do Not Have to Have The Last Word to be in control of the situation.    

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