Paradoxical Intention: A Curious Therapeutic Alternative

Have you ever thought that asking your child to deliberately misbehave might help improve his behavior? We'll explain to you how paradoxical intention works.
Paradoxical Intention: A Curious Therapeutic Alternative

Last update: 11 July, 2021

When a child engages in inappropriate behavior, the first reaction of adults is to ask the child not to do it. However, sometimes, after trying, requests, threats, or even conventional psychological techniques, there seems to be no way to eradicate that behavior. It’s precisely in these cases when paradoxical intention can be truly useful.

We must clarify that this technique has certain risks and limitations. Therefore, it must always be part of a broader set of strategies and must be used in a controlled and appropriate environment. However, due to its characteristics, it can achieve quick, effective, and surprising results.

What does paradoxical intention consist of?

Paradoxical intention is based on asking the child to do precisely what we want to eradicate. If we want him to stop biting his nails, we’ll ask him to do it more often and for a longer period of time. If he has insomnia problems, we’ll instruct him to stay awake all night. Or, if he tends to throw his toys on the floor when he gets angry, we’ll ask him to do so for a set amount of time.

Paradoxical intention: girl biting her nails.

As you can see, this is a really surprising technique that seems to go against all logic. Common sense dictates that we should be clear with the child about what he should and shouldn’t do. However, when nothing seems to work, patience can be replaced by desperation. At this point, the paradoxical intention may be a good alternative.

Paradoxical intention works when other techniques don’t

We should take into account that, in certain situations, asking a child not to engage in some behavior isn’t enough for various reasons:

  • It’s not in the child’s power to stop that behavior. For example, when a child wets the bed or has a nervous habit, such as pulling out his hair, it’s not in his control to stop that behavior. Even if he wants to, he can’t change it.
  • With his misbehavior, the child tries to get attention or generate a response from his parents. Even if the response is negative, he succeeds.
  • The parent-child interaction sequence has become ingrained. “The child acts inappropriately, the parents scold the child, and the behavior continues.” When this outcome has been repeated on numerous occasions, even if it’s unpleasant, it’s difficult to change.

How does paradoxical intention work?

Because of its very particular characteristics, the paradoxical intention is a very effective trigger for eliminating undesired behaviors. On the one hand, in the case of children who can’t avoid the behavior, this technique eliminates anticipatory anxiety.

Mother picking up toys.

In other words, a child who’s unable to sleep may feel very anxious about going to bed because he anticipates his failure to fall asleep. So, by telling him to stay awake all night, the anxiety disappears. And, by the same token, he’s very likely to fall asleep.

On the other hand, there are children who misbehave to attract the attention of others or in order to deliberately disobey. In this case, when we ask them to engage in the undesired behavior, it no longer fulfills its function. For example, if we ask the child to throw toys on the floor for ten minutes when he gets angry, this behavior will no longer be useful. Now, in order to disobey, he must stop throwing them.

Finally, when misbehavior continues because the sequence has been repeated too many times, paradoxical intention generates a change, a break. Now parents no longer scold the child but ask him to act even more in the same manner.

An alternative therapy

Whether it’s the reduction of anxiety or the surprising nature of the instructions, the reality is that paradoxical intention can offer interesting results. It’s been applied, with positive effects, in the treatment of conditions such as enuresis, nervous tics, or stuttering. However, it’s important to remember that it must always be part of a broader therapeutic plan.

If not used appropriately, this technique can lose the novelty factor and reinforce the behavior we want to eliminate. However, when other conventional strategies fail, we can find a good alternative here.

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