The Defiant Child & Challenging behaviors
The Center for Growth / Family Therapy in Philadelphia
Anyone raising a child has undoubtedly encountered a multitude of extremely “challenging behaviors.” These are often described with words like: limit-testing, throwing a fit, manipulation, whining, tantrums, defiance, pouting, sulking, withdrawing, crying, screaming, swearing, hitting, spitting, kicking, and so on. You may be able to think of several such incidents in your own home not that long ago!
Take a minute and think about how it is for you (the adult) when a child displays challenging behaviors (otherwise known as the defiant child that is hard to manage or when we are in a good mood, the strong willed child). Chances are when you are in the midst of dealing with their most challenging behaviors you feel overwhelmed, irritated, aggravated, angry, resentful, defensive and sometimes downright hostile! You have enough to deal with trying to juggle your job, household responsibilities, school projects, sibling fights, financial pressures etc. without your kid having a full-blown meltdown, right?
Herein lies the problem. We, as adults, often make an assumption that further derails our interaction with our child. We believe that our child is doing this TO us ON PURPOSE. The child is purposefully being defiant. We think our child is intentionally sabotaging the little peace we may have just because (s)he “wants his/her way.” Or we get angry because we believe (s)he “knows better.” We wonder why we are having the same conversation that we’ve had 100 times before! For example, it’s easy to assume that your child understands why it’s so important to be ready on time. But chances are, (s)he has no idea why this matters because the toy or activity in which (s)he is currently engaged is far more interesting than wherever you are planning to go!
While these conclusions would make sense within an adult interaction, they actually don’t hold true in the adult-child realm. In the midst of challenging behaviors and extreme aggravation, it’s very easy to forget that you are dealing with a child (not an adult). It’s easy to assume that a kid is being obstinate, defiant or “difficult” when they’re really just acting their age. This little person is not supposed to be able to manage his/her feelings appropriately, choose wisely or put someone else’s needs above his/her own. A child focuses solely on his/her wants and desires because this is normal in this stage of development. The part of the brain that is in charge of weighing pros and cons of a decision, or connecting choices to consequences does not even develop until adolescence into early adulthood!
What are age appropriate expectations anyway? It’s tricky to keep track, since a young child’s behavior changes rapidly from day to day. Is it reasonable to expect your two year-old not to play in the dog’s water dish? Not for more than a minute or two. Is it reasonable to expect your three year-old to share nicely with his visiting cousin? No way! Should you expect your four year-old to clean up her room without being reminded 100 times? Highly unlikely. Again – these are NOT willful demonstrations of defiance. Rather, they are common examples of age appropriate behavior.
Here are a few guidelines that we at the Center for Growth / Family Therapy in Philadelphia use to help you through the inevitable challenging behaviors of your defiant child:
- Keep in mind that kids cannot always verbally articulate what’s going on with them. This requires cognitive and verbal skills that have not necessarily developed yet. Your son/daughter is unable to explain: “Mom, I’m feeling vulnerable and insecure because of what my classmate said to me today during recess. So I’m taking my frustration out on my sister and you because I’m trying to feel better.” Your child may be able to say, “My brother won’t leave me alone!” But he is unable to explain that this situation creates a level of frustration he is unable to effectively manage. The primary way children have to communicate is through behavior (not words). Therefore, it is our job as adults to “decode” what they are trying to tell us rather than immediately react in anger.
- Try to shift your interpretation from intentional “misbehavior” to lagging skills (or a gap in skills). Rather than indicating that there is something WRONG with your child, challenging behaviors simply point to opportunities to continue teaching him/her valuable life skills (i.e. problem-solving, conflict-resolution, communication etc.).
- Model a calm tone of voice. Yelling or scolding will not help your strong willed / defiant child do better next time (which is obviously the ultimate goal). Instead, it will immediately increase his/her anxiety, making it impossible for your thoughtful message to get through. While it’s understandable to become frustrated, when we (the adults) direct our anger at our child, this only causes his/her brain to shut down and go into “survival mode” (“What do I need to do to make mom stop yelling?”). Take several deep breaths to calm yourself down so you can use a softer tone and a slower pace when you do address the situation. This increases the likelihood that your message will be heard. It also models for your child the tone of voice you would like him/her to use.
- Connect before you correct. Can you think back to a crisis you experienced? Were you open and receptive to learning or mastering new information in the midst of the crisis? Obviously not. In order for your son or daughter to absorb new information and begin to learn a new skill, (s)he must feel safe. Generally, this cannot happen when there is a high level of chaos or tension. Sometimes, giving him/her a few minutes to calm down is helpful but only if (s)he already has self-regulation skills in order to accomplish this. (i.e. telling your son/daughter to “calm down” is useless if (s)he does not know how to do that). You can also foster a calm, productive interaction by getting down to eye level with your child, and acknowledging his/her frustration. You are not excusing challenging behaviors, but you are recognizing that your child is trying to communicate something. This will help set the stage for a new skill to be taught.
- Practice together. As adults, we have a tendency to try to explain things to our children. We think if we can just build a strong enough case, that (s)he will “get on board” with us. This approach assumes that your child’s behavior is based on logic and rational thought. However, that is generally not the case. More than likely, your son/daughter does things impulsively, not necessarily intentionally. Instead of relying on verbal reasoning, demonstrate the behavior you desire and then take turns practicing. (Be sure to acknowledge effort, not perfection. This will encourage your child to keep trying, even if it takes some time to master the new skill/behavior.)
- Use proactive language. How often do you find yourself using the words “don’t,” “not” and “no” with your child? If you’re like most of us, it’s automatic. The problem is that the subconscious does not process these words. For example, “Don’t think about a pink elephant.” What did you think about? A pink elephant, of course! Since the mind looks for the dominant thought (rather than the “don’t,” “not” and “no”), this will be the focus. “Pink elephant” is the dominant thought. Therefore, if you tell your child: “Don’t jump on the bed” over and over, his mind will hear the dominant thought of “jump on the bed.” This takes some practice to shift how you language redirection but it will make a significant difference as you focus on the behavior you want to see from your child instead of the behavior you don’t want to see. For example, “Keep your feet on the floor” is more likely to achieve the desired result rather than “Don’t jump on the bed.”
Kids challenging behaviors are a normal part of growing up, but they can create a great deal of anxiety and frustration for the adults raising them. Remembering to be “the adult in the room” rather than resorting to similar behaviors as your child can be tough for all of us! But giving yourself the gift of time will reduce the level of tension and enable you to respond in a more thoughtful, intentional way. Taking a few extra seconds (or even a minute or two) to calm yourself down will make a huge difference in how effectively you are able to teach your child how to do better next time.
Still struggling? Help is available 267-324-9564 at The Center for Growth / Family Therapy in Philadelphia