How Reverse Psychology Works

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus  | 

Using Reverse Psychology With Children

mother with annoying daughter
When all else fails, parents often try reverse psychology on their children.

Anyone with kids has probably used a good dose of reverse psychology on them. After all, kids seem hard-wired to do the opposite of what their parents desire. (At least some of the time, anyway.) And like many of us, they don't like to be told what to do or not to do.

In one experiment, 2-year-olds were told not to play with a certain toy. Voilà — they suddenly really, really wanted to pay with that toy. Similarly, in another experiment, older kids were told they could select a poster from a group of five. But right after that announcement, they were told one of the five was actually not available after all. Guess what? They suddenly found the missing poster quite desirable. Some studies also show that certain warning labels merely make a product more alluring to kids, such as those put on a violent TV show [source: PsyBlog].


So what's the takeaway? Parents can use reverse psychology to blunt some of kids' innate desire. But they must do so responsibly and sparingly, experts say. First of all, if you employ reverse psychology too often, it will become apparent and won't work. Your kids will view you as a manipulator, which isn't a good thing.

Second, you should never employ "negative" reverse psychology, which can be damaging to a child's self-esteem. For example, don't tell your son you'll put away his bike for him because he probably can't figure out how to maneuver it into your crowded garage without scratching the cars anyway. Instead, look for positive or innocuous forms of reverse psychology. Let's say your young daughter won't eat dinner. Tell her that's fine, but since dinnertime apparently is over, it's now bedtime.

With teens, it often helps to argue against yourself, in sort of a reverse-reverse psychology. If your 16-year-old wants to attend a questionable event, for example, tell her you can't force her to stay away, even if you have evidence there are dangers. She'll have to decide for herself what's wisest. Now you're effectively arguing against yourself, which may cause your child to take your advice in the end [source: Online Parenting Coach].

"Paradox is not giving permission to do what the child wants rather than what the parent wants," Raymond says. "It’s about encouraging the child to do the wrong thing so that it then becomes unappetizing."

Some psychologists oppose using reverse psychology under any circumstances. Dr. Vicki Panaccione, a child clinical psychologist, says on her website that if you reward your child for doing the opposite of what you say — for example, you tell your son not to cut his long hair, he does and then you tell him how great he looks now — you're teaching them NOT to listen to you. You're also teaching them that you don't really mean what you say.