Defiant children?


Any parent knows that as soon as a child learns the word "no," it becomes his or her favorite word. Children are constantly testing their world for safety and security. Infants cry at night to see if mom will come to the rescue, and "no" serves the same purpose. This behavior seems to drop off in the school-age years usually, but picks back up in the teenage years, when children will say "I hate you," or other provocative things, with exactly the same unconscious motive--to see if their parents' love is truly unconditional, but has boundaries. That sort of love is the springboard and safety net teens need to have confidence jumping into the world of increasing independence.

However, some children never seem to get over childhood testing behaviors. Cases like this can be the result of early trauma, or simply being in the foster care system (which is inherently traumatic). Sometimes it's just the way they are, due to a mental health diagnosis. What is defiance? Whether loud or soft, it's the refusal to obey a parent's reasonable demands (come to dinner, do chores). Intervention must come immediately. When defiance is left unchecked, family relationships often break down into predictable cycles of endless argument that get worse as the years go one. Early and consistent intervention is key.

Parents need to obey the following basic rules to combat persistent defiance. I have a complete parenting program based a three year period in my career in which I worked almost exclusively with defiant children and their parents. These are the highlights, but if you'd like, email me to request the full two-page version.

1. Negative cycles of arguing reinforce children's defiance by creating an atmosphere of confusion in which they see you as an equal.

2. Taking things away does not work as a punishment. Give positive punishments, such as "write offs." (I will not... 100 times). For younger children, time-outs are great, but only if used with the rule that getting out of the chair means another minute in the chair.

3. Punishments need to be predictable and proportional--use a posted chart, and have your child help make it.

4. Repeating the demand or trying to explain yourself without threatening a punishment completely destroys your authority, and is likely to simply create yet another negative spiral downwards.

5. Dealing with defiance must be immediate, before an argument can start. If you've warned of a punishment, it needs to be given immediately after defiance is shown (including the child ignoring you).

6. Many books encourage "active ignoring" of escalating defiance, such as is shown in the cartoon above. This is a critical skill, but it has no effect at all unless preceded by a warning and a consequence.

The most important rule is consistency. An extreme example: as horrible as it sounds, children who suffered abuse on a regular basis are much easier to treat than children who trembled with fear not knowing when the abuse would begin or end. Inconsistent parenting is a form of neglect. The good news is that you don't have to be perfect. I tell my clients that if they put the brake on defiance 80% if the time, avoiding negative cycles of arguing, change will occur. The main thing is that your kid sees the change in you, and as he or she begins to feel more secure, the testing behaviors will lose their purpose and disappear.