The Parenting Toolkit: Paradoxical Intervention

Sometimes, in order to stop a problem behavior, it is necessary to prescribe the problem behavior. Like vaccination, where a bit of the disease is injected into the system to help the system build immunity, paradoxical intervention encourages a bit of bad behavior in the hopes of ending it.

For example, let’s say two brothers are fighting; no serious fights but verbal insults and maybe some pinching and shoving. Normally the parent would tell them to stop it and that usually only works for a few minutes at best. So instead of telling the siblings to stop, the parent suggests a set time and place where they can engage in that behavior for a limited period of time. You need to create a space, say the garage or the game room. A timer is needed, just like a referee. The idea is to allow siblings to engage in this behavior for, say, 20 minutes. There should be rules like no hitting, spitting, throwing hard objects, etc. Rules are also set about what they can do: they may be allowed to swear, yell, and maybe even throw pillows. In fact, it can be arranged to be a pillow fight with the same conditions and guidelines. Siblings should be included in rule making. They are allowed to engage in this behavior without punishment or reprimand.

Another example: Let’s say a child is overeating. Instead of trying to limit the amount of food he eats, try a paradoxical intervention by offering extra food. If the child is eating an entire bag of chips, offer another bag. Here the idea is that the child finally rejects the food that is offered. If this continues, the child will refuse more and more and this may help establish the behavior of saying no to extra food.

In all cases, children engage in behaviors for a reason, and most of the time that reason is to fulfill a need. The need can be attention, it can be love, it can be a way to express anger, and it can be a way to communicate something. By showing your child that he is not trying to stop the behavior, but that he is willing to let it escalate, you can tell him that he is interested in finding out the reason for the behavior without saying so much. Children will not be able to answer “why are you doing that?” You will probably get “I don’t know” as an answer. But, if they feel you are on their side and not against them, they are more likely to divulge information that otherwise would not have been expressed.

Paradoxical intervention, sometimes referred to as reverse psychology, should be handled with caution, as it can backfire. For example, a young child who refuses to eat dinner may be told that he absolutely can’t eat dinner. Often the child, wanting to oppose, will demand to eat dinner. But sometimes they can just say “fine” and walk away from the table. The paradoxical intervention is best used when other interventions have not worked. The father needs to think it through and then try. If it doesn’t work, he just stops.

Parents need to realize that doing the same thing over and over again, such as telling their children to stop this or that, and expecting a different outcome, is foolish at best. The definition of insanity is jokingly defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. If, as a parent, he is not getting the results he wants in his children from his current behavior, just do something different. Paradoxical intervention is generally something very different and very often generates a different response.

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