By: Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW, Parenting Educator and Coach
One of the most common problems that parents ask me about is defiance. There is something about your child (no matter how cute they are) looking you straight in the eye and saying, “No, I won’t do that,” “I hate you,” or “You can’t make me,” that challenges us to the core. So first off, know that you are not alone! This is tough stuff for all of us. Our goal should be to utilize our relationship with a child as motivation for learning, rather than ineffective consequences and punishment. As Alfie Kohn wisely says, let’s try to “work with” children rather than “doing to” them. That small change in language is part of an important paradigm shift in parenting. Here are eight strategies to help you stay composed when you are faced with defiant behavior from your child.
1. Remember why they refuse. Children are essentially powerless. Imagine a day when you get up and before you can even take a breath, someone is telling you what to do. You’re told what to wear, what to eat, when to leave the house. I am not suggesting that we allow children to run the show. But, trying on their perspective of close to zero autonomy can help you empathize with your child’s desire for power, even if it’s the power to defy.
2. Don’t ever take it personally. Yes, easier said than done. However, your child is not refusing to eat breakfast as a way to intentionally frustrate you. She is not telling you “no way” about getting in (or out of) the car to annoy. Rigid, defiant, and “off track” behavior is a signal that your child is feeling disconnected. Children that behave “badly” are not doing it to “get” attention; they’re doing it because they need attention and connection from you. Getting angry and controlling in this instance is about the worst thing you can do.
3. Talk to yourself. There is no better tool for staying mindful and calm than the use of positive, encouraging self-talk. In order to pull off “Don’t take it personally,” you will need to speak to yourself inwardly about what is happening in front of you. That means when your child says, “I don’t waaant to get dressed,” and your first thoughts are: “I DON’T CARE! GET DRESSED NOW!” you can keep from saying that out loud and instead use some helpful self-talk: “Deep breath, another deep breath. Joey is refusing to get out of the car and I want to yell but I can stay calm. I know that yelling won’t help.” Once you talk yourself out of behavior you don’t want to engage in, you can talk yourself into responding more effectively.
4. Reflect and honor a child’s feelings and meet them where they are. Allow a child her feelings of rebellion and engage in a warm way. (Yes, this is actually possible after that kind chat you had with yourself.) Try narrating, “You really don’t want to get out of the car. I see your arms holding onto those car seat straps and you’re probably thinking, ‘No, no, no I’m not getting out of the car!’” What good does this do? It creates a pause, a gap in the potential anger spiral you might both whirl right into. When you state “what is” in a calm manner, your child feels recognized, and because you didn’t engage in any type of power struggle, they is no authority or control to react to or push up against.
5. Hold boundaries on behavior only. Here’s what I mean by this: When your child loses it and their nervous system is overloaded, it is not a teachable moment. If they are freaking out about not wanting to do something you are asking them to do, keep everyone safe and leave it at that until the storm has passed. Stop hitting with firm arms and say, “I can’t let you hit.” When they retaliate and yell, “I hate you—you’re the worst mom in the whole world!” Do not try to now also put boundaries on their words. They have moved from a completely inappropriate way of expressing their stress and displeasure (hitting) to a more, albeit only slightly more, appropriate way (yelling mean things at you). Ignore the spew of vileness and keep your focus on physical safety. Acknowledge the feelings of upset, but not the content of what’s said. Say simply: “You are having really strong feelings.”
6. Use some humor and power play. Humor, when used wisely, is a very valuable tool. Avoid sarcasm or teasing and aim for a silly, conspiratorial tone. If, for example, your child resists teeth-brushing, you could say: “Hmm, mouth seems to be closed, guess I’ll need to brush your nose and ears instead.” Watch thrm laugh as you do and after enough giggles they’ll likely comply. Power play is when you play games that give a child the more powerful role. “Push Dad Over” is a favorite in our house, as is “Invited Defiance” where I build a block tower and beg that it not be knocked down only to move through the build-beg-knockdown process over and over.
7. Keep a positive vision for and of your child. Know that raising respectful, honest, productive members of society is a marathon and not a sprint. This is another area for some positive self-talk: “My child is young and still learning. His brain is not done developing and he needs my gentle guidance to become all he can be.” Trust him to turn things around. Just because your child is refusing to leave the house at 3:30 pm, doesn’t mean he’ll still be refusing at 3:40 pm. Hold the vision that he will eventually comply with your request.
8.Try pre-teaching. Make eye-contact and give short and clear instruction before you head into a potential problem. The other day I told my son, “We are not going to get any treats today at the grocery store today. Please don’t ask once we’re in the store.” A light-hearted, “Hey, please remember to use quiet voices in the library,” never hurts. Avoid a tense or irritable demeanor while doing this.
In closing: I know it’s hard—really, really hard to keep yourself regulated, calm and in a place where you can respond instead of react when things are fast spinning out of control. I hope these tips help you keep your cool when tempers run hot and you see real results—improvement in your relationship with your child and their behavior.
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