Q & A: Contrary Child

Q & A: Contrary Child

One of our readers, Jab, asked a great question in a comment on “The Importance of Validation” about situations where SAYing WHAT YOU SEE doesn’t seem to work. As often happens here at Language of Listening, what started as a quick response turned in to a full-blown blog post!

Jab asked:

“I’m not having much success with SWYS. I must be missing something about it. For example when my daughter trips or falls and starts crying we go to her pick her up or hold her and say something like “you fell, that looked like it hurt, that startled you, or that was scary…”. But thru her tears she says she didn’t fall, it doesn’t hurt even thou she’s bleeding… When we didn’t see the fall, we can’t get any information from her about what hurts.

Lately this denial has spread to other things, like “when you are ready we can go to the playground” her response is “I am ready”, me: “you are still in your pajamas”, her: “no I’m not, I’m dressed”. Honestly I don’t know how to proceed after that.”

Betsy’s response:

Hi Jab,

It sounds like you’re doing everything right, and it’s still not working. That can be really frustrating when you’re trying to calm a crying child.

One of the main tenets of Language of Listening is that children MUST continue to communicate until they are heard. So even if your daughter says things that don’t make sense, take her at her word. Keep SAYing WHAT YOU SEE and following her lead. She will take you exactly where she needs to go.

When she says that she didn’t fall, or that it doesn’t hurt (even if it’s obviously untrue), continue by saying that back to her with no “end goal” in mind. She needs to know that you are not there to “fix” or change anything, just there to listen:

SWYS: “You fell! That must have hurt!”


Child: “No, I didn’t. I’m fine. I’m not hurt at all.”


SWYS: “You didn’t fall. You’re totally fine, and not hurt at all! I’m just wrong!”


STRENGTH: “Well, you know what you need.”


CAN DO: “Let me know if you want a hug or anything.”

Contradictions tell you that her need for power (being right) is higher in that moment than the need for connection (comfort).

One of the quickest ways to meet a child’s need for power is to use the phrase, “I’m wrong!” Especially if your daughter is not used to hearing it, you will see a reaction. Once she knows that you will make her “right” anytime she needs you to, the power struggles will stop.

Making a child “right” does not mean agreeing with her; it is simply stating the child’s point of view so she knows you understand. Starting with your pajama example, it could sound like this:

You: “When you are ready, we can go to the playground.”


Child: “I am ready.”


SWYS: “You are still in your pajamas.”


Child: “No I’m not. I’m dressed.”


STRENGTH: “Oh! So you know you need to be dressed to go…” (How she is right.)


SWYS: “…and you think pajamas count as being dressed.” (Making her “right” by seeing her POV)


Boundary/CAN DO: “Pajamas on playgrounds are not OK with me. Pajamas at home are OK though. Must be something fun you can do here and keep your pajamas on…”

Another subtle point is that starting with “when” as you did in, “When you are ready we can go to the playground,” makes your plans conditional on the child. To a child seeking power, this will sound like you just put her in control. If that’s not what you want, short clear CAN DOs will work better until cooperation becomes the norm.

To encourage cooperation, instead of starting with a conditional “when” or “if,” try a quick SWYS to confirm what she wants and then add specific CAN DOs:

SWYS: “You want to go to the playground.”


Boundary/CAN DO: “You can put your clothes on, and we will go!”

If she still argues for pajamas just because you said clothes, this is an opportunity for you to get more playful with your CAN DOs. For example, could wearing a pajama top with daytime pants work? How about making getting dressed into a game by adding funny sounds? The sound I make with kids is “shooop!” as I pull the item on, followed by a popping sound when a hand or foot or head pops through. They love it!

One last thing to consider is that if she contradicts you often, she may simply be ready to practice boundary setting herself. If you think that’s it, from time to time, try this:

SWYS: “You want to make the rules about what to wear to the park…”


Boundary/CAN DO: “…and those rules are for me to make. Hmmm. Must be some rules you can make!” (or “Must be some time you can make the rules for dressing,” or “Must be something/someone you can make dressing rules for.”)

Finding acceptable CAN DOs could reduce the struggle in general and create the cooperation you desire. If you (or the child) are not afraid to get silly, finding CAN DOs together as a team can often turn into a game! Let me know how this works for you!


  1. What a wonderful post!

    I’m a child psychologist and work frequently with parents and young children. In my work, I really focus on providing parents with very practical strategies they can use. Part of my work is also providing parents with “scripts,” so they know the exact words that they can say (eventually, most parents begin to revise these scripts into their own words), which I think really helps to bring “ideas” into “action.”

    Will definitely be sharing this post with my parents.


    • Betsy Blackard |


      Thank you for your kind words! It sounds like we think a lot alike. I really admire the work that you do, and I’m glad our techniques can be of use!

  2. cocochanel |

    This post has so many lightbulb moments for me! The ‘I’m wrong’ helping with power was one, but I was so excited when I realised that her need for ‘power’ (being right) was more important than her need to ‘connect’, this makes a lot of sense with my daughter!!! This post was jam packed with helpful ideas, thank you!

  3. Betsy Blackard |


    It can be frustrating to have boundary setting turn into a power struggle. I’m so glad we could offer ideas that help you empower your daughter and ultimately feel connected again. That’s what we’re all about!

  4. Linda |

    I did a search for “contrary child” and this posting came up. I’m 60 now & in a co-dependent recovery program. My mom has never been able to admit when she’s wrong or apologize to me for anything & we have a very contentious relationship. As a teen I knew I didn’t want to be like her. She’s cold and aloof. I think she’s a narcissist & I have never felt good enough or loved by her. Now my sibs are staring clear of me & I think she’s part of that. I am NOT crazy. All I know to do now is to detach from her. I’m the oldest of 5. Any advice for dealing w/her?

    • Linda,

      You found my daughter’s blog post in a search for “contrary child.” She is off in graduate school now, so I will respond for her. It sounds like when you read her post you identified with the child. That’s not unusual since what we do in the blog is present the child’s perspective to promote understanding and connection by getting kids heard. So it seems, you have come to the right place.

      What I heard in your comment was that despite the years of feeling disconnected from your mother, you still long for a loving connection with her. Detaching from her now probably doesn’t feel right because it still doesn’t get you what you want. Plus if it were the right thing for you to do for emotional self-protection, your subconscious would have already done that automatically by now. You would have decided that your mother was the problem, cut your ties, and that would be that. People do that all the time…but not you.

      Instead, here you are reaching out to find an answer that actually moves you toward your goal of reconnection. That tells me your drive toward resolution of this life-long problem is strong, and somewhere deep down inside you, you believe it is possible. Those are two strengths you have that will help you do the kind of introspective, personal growth work needed to break through this cycle of disconnection.

      The way I approach personal growth work is through logic and total ownership of the problem, so my advice will be for YOU about YOU. To give you a taste of what it would look like to work with me, I would have you take a look at your teenage decision to NOT be like your mother, as in “cold and aloof.” That’s because the second you decide there is something that you cannot “be,” your mind obliges and creates a “blind spot” so that, regardless of the actions you take, you will never see yourself as that – in your case that would be “cold and aloof.”

      That would mean that any actions you take or have ever taken for self-protection, like distancing yourself from people or trying not to react, would show up as completely justified, like the one that prompted your note – detachment. In your statement, you don’t want to detach, but see no other way. The justification is what keeps it from looking like “cold and aloof” because when you think about what detachment actually looks like, it’s not much different than “cold and aloof.”

      Though as a child you hated your mom doing that, the fact that you are considering doing the same thing now could mean that you are ready to separate those actions from the meaning you assigned to them, which was probably “not loving someone.”

      The first step is seeing that there are other reasons to detach. What if your mother didn’t want to detach from you either, but saw no other way to survive given whatever she was facing at the time? Could it be possible that if your first sibling was born shortly after you (or for other reasons), she might have detached because she needed you to be more independent than you were ready for? Or could she have detached automatically for self=preservation without even realizing it, then wondered what was wrong with you? Either scenario would lead to you feeling misunderstood or wronged and her becoming defensive, blaming you, and pulling away even more, completely unaware that she had done anything to apologize for.

      There are many possible reasons for a mother to withdraw emotionally from her first-born child, but none of them are out of a lack of love. In fact, like in your case, the reason is almost always the opposite as you are experiencing right now in reverse with her. You are not contemplating pulling away from your mother because you don’t love her; it’s because you love her so much that you think you need to pull away.

      In a case like this with your mother, the problem is that you have a thought that you decided was true when you were a child, something like, “She doesn’t love me,” and it fires up when she acts “cold and aloof.” If you can consider the possibility that her actions may not mean what you think, you are ready to pursue some serious personal growth work that can lead to the results you desire – a stronger connection with your mother.

      One really great way to tell if my approach is right for you is to check your reaction to what I’ve said already. If my coaching so far feels “cold and aloof” or puts you off, then please contact my colleague Dr. Theresa Kellam, licensed psychologist, or someone like her, because you may need emotional healing first: http://www.theresakellam.com

      However, if a logical approach works for you and leaves you feeling like you and/or your mother make more sense, then please contact me to set up a private consultation. There is a lot more we can go into based on even the few things you shared in your comment: https://www.languageoflistening.com/coaching/private/

      The trick in personal growth is to find what works for you so you can reconnect with your own inner compass and find your way home. Reaching out says you are ready.

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