Oppositional behaviour – where a person behaves in a way that is opposite to what is expected by themselves and/or others.
Many people dislike this term, especially when it’s used to describe PDAers who wont do what people have told them to do. They’re not conforming to authority and so they are being oppositional. Perhaps the term the person is looking for is avoidance. PDAers generally don’t do what is expected of them because of their high anxiety and other issues triggering a heightened fight, flight or freeze response, also known as avoidance behaviour.
It might not be helpful to label a PDAer as oppositional because people who display oppositional behaviour are usually seen as doing so deliberately when they are fully able to not do so, whereas with PDAers they don’t have the luxury of having that choice, they cannot act differently because if they could then they would. This is where my understanding of PDA oppositional behaviour comes from. For PDAers, oppositional behaviour is the behaviour they display that is oppositional to how they themselves would prefer to act.
PDA oppositional behaviour is behaviour that is oppositional to the PDAers intended behaviour. I myself can attest to this, there have been so many times where I’ve gone to do one thing and my body has done another. Frequently in social situations I want to say something but either the words don’t come out or they come out wrong, oppositional to my intent. I would love to get up in the morning and ask my partner what drink he wants and then make it without feeling like throwing all the cups out the window, instead I avoid the task altogether then put up with him wondering why I never make him a drink in the morning. Even worse when I manage to make a coffee for myself but can’t bring myself to do the same for him, yet I’m sure any non-PDAer would have no trouble with this.
PDA itself is oppositional in that part of our brain believes that what we want and how we are thinking is wrong and so makes us do the opposite to what we intend. It doesn’t matter how much I tell myself that there’s nothing to be afraid of, that it’ll be alright and that nothing bad has ever happened before, I still become anxious and I still end up not being able to do the things I try to do. My brain is oppositional to itself.
Being oppositional also helps to alleviate anxiety, which I’m guessing is why it happens. There’s the control mechanism to it too, by doing something else we are in control of what is happening and we are doing something that is not what others want us to do. If doing as we are told causes the body to react with fight, flight or freeze then we will naturally try to control our own reactions by doing something that is linked to what has been asked (because we want to comply) but that is different to what has been asked. For example, if I am told to make a snowman I may make a snow penguin, because I want to comply, but my body/brain has seen complying to be dangerous, so I do something that is in line with the original request (building something out of snow) but is not what has been asked (a man), and I retain control of the situation. It’s like being in a speeding car that’s about to plunge over a cliff, and everyone else in the car wants to go over because they can’t see the danger. If you were sat in that car I bet you would make a grab for the steering wheel to drive in a different direction. It’s a similar process. We perceive a danger that others are oblivious to and we react instinctively to control the situation to ensure our safety.
It might not make a lot of sense, fearing danger from being asked to make a snowman. This is why PDA is classed as a disability. The fear is real though, as real as being in a car about to drive over a cliff. If trying to steer away from that cliff was seen as being different to what everyone else in the car expects then you too would be labelled as oppositional. Of course, driving off a cliff is actually dangerous whilst building a snowman isn’t (although my brain still comes up with ways that it is, you can get frost bite for one thing). Our brains cannot differentiate between real danger and perceived danger, this is why it’s so frustrating, I know that I’m not in any real danger from asking if my partner wants a coffee in the morning, but my brain is flashing a red warning light saying ‘danger, danger’, just like it would if I was in that car, just like it would being told to build a snowman. This is what it means to have PDA, our brains see everything as a danger to be avoided, even if this means being oppositional.
I know some people are also seen as being argumentative or defiant when they are displaying oppositional behaviour, this is because some PDAers may be verbally oppositional or discuss what they will/wont do. Some may say ‘I’m not building a snowman, I’m going to build a snow penguin’. Some adults don’t like children doing something different to what they’ve been told and may argue with the child ‘No, I said to build a snowman’. This quickly leads to a full blown argument where the child is then blamed as being oppositional and argumentative or simply defiant. Actually, it is the adult not recognising the reasoning behind the child’s actions and then trying to enforce their own will on them. There are plenty of other techniques that can be used that don’t result in fighting, including letting the child have that control, after all, the adult doesn’t feel in danger if the child makes a snow penguin instead of a snowman. As parents, it is often their job to see dangers that the child cannot see themselves and ensure they are safe and act in ways that doesn’t put them in danger. With PDAers, it is like doing this for everyone, we can often see dangers that others cannot and feel we must take action to prevent harm, just like an adult would. It doesn’t matter that some of the perceived dangers are not harmful at all. The adult needs to remember though, that the PDAer sees dangers they cannot, just like they often see dangers children cannot.
I know for myself that being oppositional actually relieves anxiety. I feel better by taking control of a task and changing it to make it ‘better’. Often I can see flaws that others haven’t noticed anyway or I can think of a better way to do the task, this further reinforces the idea that I need to be in charge. I know I’m not always right, but I still feel the need to take control. Sometimes I can see that doing something in an oppositional way to what someone else wants will make things worse but the need to be in control is greater than the problems that would arise from doing it differently. I would rather do a bad job my way than a good job someone else’s way. Not because I don’t want to do it their way, but because it feels better and is easier to actually take part in the task if I have that element of control. I’m not being argumentative, I’m arguing to make myself feel better so I can join in. I want to build with the snow, but trying to make a snowman would make me feel so ill I couldn’t take part, so I have to do it differently. Oppositional. It’s like someone in a wheelchair going up a ramp instead of the stairs, it’s easier for them and they get to the same place, but they do it differently. Yes, they might also need someone to push them, they might need the ramp building in the first place, it might be disruptive for others and they might have to walk further. But shouldn’t we be met halfway anyway.
Of course there are times when being oppositional is difficult for others, harmful even. Just like complying is for us. Apples and oranges. I try not to be too oppositional because I know how it can impact others, I try to find a way around it. Similarly, others should try to be accommodating to PDAers too, find a way around it. If that means telling someone to build a snow penguin because you want them to build a snowman then so be it. Meet us halfway and we’ll meet you halfway too.