Do you have a defiant child? Parenting Coach Katie Malinski LCSW role plays with Kate Raidt how to handle a defiant child.
There are ways to make the demands of parenting young children both easier for you and more effective for your children. It is so important to be able to listen and pay attention to what is going on in these little minds. This often takes scheduled time in our busy days. Even stay-at-home parents often disregard the importance of spending this kind of time. Whenever you have the opportunity to give your children 100% of your attention, do it even if it’s for a half an hour. Done consistently, you will learn so much about your kids that will pay off well into the future.
No matter what ages, your kids have agendas that are just as important to them as yours are to you. You have to get out the door and get your kids to wherever they have to go so you can get to work on time—and your kids have to pick out all the shoes from the shoe bin to see what’s there and then put them on and take them off again, line up his cars in the living room and barricade them so as not to be swiped by a sibling, eat breakfast at a pace appropriate to one’s age and hunger level, and express uncontrollable outrage at the parent, sibling or dog who interferes with any of this.
It is not your job to give up your agenda in order for your child to accomplish his. As a matter of fact, when you do this to avoid a meltdown or feelings of disappointment, you are not only sacrificing your needs in the process but are traveling down the road to entitlement by teaching your children that their needs are more important than yours.
Balance is the key. So when five different agendas are clashing during the morning rush, acknowledging them will save time. The mindset that a parent’s agenda is paramount requires all others to climb on board, and if they don’t, it is viewed as defiant and disrespectful. This kind of thinking will get you spinning in endless power struggles and then feeling guilty and inadequate all day long. Not to mention how your reactions fuel your children’s behavior when they perceive they have to fight not only for what they want but also for their sense of rightness.
Acknowledgment means patience and understanding. Simply allowing that your children do and should have their own ideas and ways of doing things without blaming them for lack of consideration will go a long way. If you have a minute, breathe and pay attention to what it is they are trying to accomplish.
“You really wish you could stay here and play with your train set. Why don’t you set up the next 3 train cars and then make it longer as soon as you get home” doesn’t guarantee smooth sailing, but it does let your child know that you have seen him and care about what he is up to.
“What is one last thing you need to do before we get coats on and leave the house?” This gives your child a chance to be in control while at the same time doing what you are asking. It’s a win/win.
Choices go a long way in helping strong-willed, rushed, or frustrated children feel important. Many might say that children get too many choices and need to learn to do what they are told. However, those children who have strong opinions may need choices when learning and developing cooperation. Giving them a consistent structure and routine for the day with room for some personal choices within that framework gives them a sense of personal power that enables them to be amazingly cooperative when necessary.
Times of stress are not times for reasoning or trying to make your child understand your agenda. When the five-year-old has had it with his younger brother destroying the fort he has built with the couch cushions, he loses it. Telling him he should know better, that he’s the big brother and should realize that his brother doesn’t understand will only fuel his anger. Sitting silently close by waiting for the storm to pass allows for the feelings to empty so that problem solving can be accomplished when rational thought returns.
Giving in or giving up to expedite what must be done in the moment, while necessary at times, will only lead to learned habits that make future cooperation harder and harder. Invest the time up front and you will gain so much for the long haul.
We’re great at calling out our kids for their misbehavior, but rarely do we take the time to look into what provoked that behavior in the first place. We just want it to change, and so we use some type of tactic (rewards or punishments) to try to get the behavior we want. Seldom does it work—at least in the long run. The behavior alone is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s what lies beneath the surface that needs our attention—and also where real change occurs.
We’re quick to say things like, “He’s just doing that to get my attention” or “She did that for no reason at all.” These statements indicate we do not completely understand behavior. First of all, why wouldn’t a child want your attention 24/7? When he is dismissed or yelled at for going after attention, he gets the message that he’s bad for wanting it.
There is always a reason for unacceptable behavior, whether we see it or not. You may never know what it was that provoked a particular behavior—maybe another child called your child a name in school and she’s taking it out on her little brother. The important thing to know is that there is always a reason.
Children are very impulsive and their emotions get the better of them a great deal of the time. We certainly say and do things we don’t mean, don’t we? Let’s give our kids that same leeway. They make lots of mistakes.
Here are some possible reasons for your child’s misbehavior:
- She feels misunderstood. Let’s say she has hit her little brother. You punish the hitting by yelling, blaming, sending her to her room, taking something away or threatening her. You ignore the fact that she was provoked: her brother took something of hers, or he represents competition for your time and attention. The hitting is not okay, but the more you react, the more she feels misunderstood.
- He feels unacceptable or unloved. A child’s greatest need is acceptance. When you try to get him to be different, to do something he just can’t, he thinks you don’t like him the way he is and so he behaves accordingly. You react punitively thinking the negative effect will eliminate the undesirable behavior, but the message to your child is that you don’t accept him the way he is.
- She feels left out, alone. Whether she’s been rejected by a friend, she’s left behind, she’s isolated in time out, or not invited to a birthday party, a young child will feel abandoned and very alone. Kids don’t go to other kids and ask, “Has that ever happened to you? How do you feel about it?” Instead they feel like they’re the only one in the world.
- He can’t meet up to your expectations. When you set the bar higher than your child can meet because you don’t understand how hard it may be for him to do what you want, you send the message that he’ll never be good enough.
- She thinks it’s unfair. You name it and kids think it’s not fair. You try to reason with her about why it is fair. By denying her feelings, she feels it all the more. Even though we all know life is not fair, kids just want their feelings to be heard.
- He feels stupid, less than, not as good as others. Whether your child knows he cannot do the math problems like his classmates, his sibling always seems to have an easier time of it, his peers choose someone else, feeling like a failure can lead to resentment and anger toward others.
Your job is to understand what emotions lie beneath the surface and not simply react to the tip, to only what you see. First connect with your child’s feelings whether or not you agree or think they are justified. Many times all you need to do is restate what they are trying to say. “You think what I said is unfair.” “You get sick and tired of your brother being around.” “It’s really hard to think you’re not as smart as the rest.” When you deny their feelings or try to explain your reasoning behind it—“You are just as smart as everyone else”—you add to the feelings of alone and misunderstood. When you connect, your child feels understood and accepted. Then she will be willing to see how she could have handled it differently.
Unacceptable behavior is your signal that your child is HAVING a problem, not BEING a problem. When we address only the behavior, usually with some form of punitive reaction, we add insult to injury. Why would she want to change her behavior if she is made to feel bad about herself? As Jane Nelson of Positive Parenting says, “If we want our children to do better, why do we think we must first make them feel worse?”
No matter how unjustified or wrong you think your child’s emotions are, that hurt, that desire, that feeling of being misunderstood are the feelings he has. He wants to know you understand what it feels like. When you can help him feel normal for having big feelings, he will feel okay be more willing to cooperate and learn.
Many of today’s parents fear that if they don’t give their children the right push out of the crib, they will not make it in this world of high-powered over-achievers. The fear is that anything less than a Harvard post-graduate degree will leave our children on the corner asking for spare change. The days of sending kids out to play to fend for themselves for hours on end are long gone. Instead we register our kids for music, French, math and gymnastics classes before they can walk trying to give them the edge.
Multiple research studies have shown that parents who hold firm but nurturing standards and let go enough to give their children autonomy raise children who do better academically, psychologically, and socially than either over-involved parents who push their children toward achievement or under-involved and permissive parents who set too few limits.
Even so, parents have a hard time letting go of what they think will give their kids a head start. Media and marketing doesn’t help to convince parents to buy less and allow their children to discover without all the bells and whistles. We give, we praise, we register in program after program hoping…for what? That our child will be rich and famous?
Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University studied children’s motivation by giving them simple puzzles they had no problem putting together. Some were told how smart and capable they were, others were not told anything. The ones who were left alone were more motivated to try more difficult puzzles and showed more confidence in their progress and ability.
Our goal is to instill self-motivation and confidence in our children to get through the hard stuff. They don’t need the way paved for them. They need our support and encouragement to deal with feelings of discouragement and disappointment, even failure so they can push themselves through the messiness to accomplishment. This is the sweet spot of self-esteem. It cannot be given to a child; it must come from within.
We give that confidence with trust—trust in our child’s developmental process, timing, and ability. That means knowing your child and being willing to stand back and watch. If it is too hard for you to let go of controlling what your children do, say, think and feel—of trying to make your children happy—then you might be a toxic parent.
Here are a few tips to check yourself:
- Can you watch your child fall, get a scraped knee or a bruised ego and simply be there for consolation without jumping to the rescue or trying to protect hurts from ever happening?
- Instead of praising with “Good job”, “You’re terrific” or “Good girl” can you stop yourself, think about what your child is doing and either say nothing to normally expected behavior or be specific? “You put that puzzle piece in without any help,” “I really appreciate your help with that grocery bag.”
- Can you be a sounding board to listen when your child has a problem or do you jump in and tell her what to do about it?
- Can you allow your child to get to accomplishment on her own or do you direct and correct so you are sure she gets it right?
- Are you able to simply be with your child without teaching something all the time?
Let your child grow. Development needs to happen from the inside out. Remember that the whole oak tree is present in the tiny acorn. What it needs to grow is the proper soil, water, sunshine and temperature. It doesn’t need any internal adjustment.
If you find yourself short on trust, the work to do is within yourself. It will not come with pushing your child to achieve. That is your cue that you are trying to make yourself feel better.
Ask, “Am I trying to meet my needs or my child’s needs? Am I the one who wants the gold star and best parent of the year award?”
Children need parental authority to know who is in charge. And parents need authority to maintain order and provide children with the scaffolding they need to climb high. However, the meaning of authority is often misunderstood as the right to give orders and enforce obedience. This is not appropriate authority for a healthy parent-child relationship.
Another definition is “the power to influence others because of one’s recognized knowledge about something”. The power of influence is the huge responsibility inherent in parenting—a responsibility too often relinquished when parents feel insecure, overwhelmed or angry. Without consciousness and care, that influence can have an extremely negative effect. When children’s behavior triggers emotional reactions and automatic, knee-jerk attempts at control, parents have a negative effect and their unrealistic expectations of their children provoke resistance and defiance.
Parental authority that helps children feel safe and secure requires a good knowledge of what each child is capable of developmentally, temperamentally, emotionally, and cognitively so the child can feel successful meeting expectations. Understanding that normal development means that a child’s job is to get what he wants when he wants it, does not mean he has to get it but does help in understanding what appropriate expectations are.
My answer to parents who complain, “He never listens to me”, is that he doesn’t like hearing what you are saying, and more likely the tone in which you are saying it. No one likes to have orders barked at them.
It is essential for parents to set appropriate limits on their children, make decisions that children are incapable of making, and maintain a balance of rights and needs within the family. All this can be done without blame, threats, or punishments—ever. The secret is in letting the child know that she isn’t expected to think like an adult.
Here are some ways of implementing what I call Your Parent Authority Card (PAC):
- I don’t expect that you to want to go to bed. You wish you could keep playing and stay up as long as you want. That’s why I’m here. It’s my job to make sure you get enough sleep, so I have to get you to bed now.
- Of course you don’t want to turn off the TV—I probably wouldn’t either if I were you. That’s why you have a parent—to make sure you do other things too. What would you like to do now?
- Of course you want to go to that party. I appreciate your arguments. Since I’m your parent, it’s my job to make the final decision, and I’m going to say no this time. Bummer. I’m sure I’d be mad at me too if I were you.
- I don’t expect you kids to understand how difficult it is to drive with a lot of noise going on. You’ve never driven and won’t for a long time. It’s my job to keep us all safe, so I have to insist that we maintain an acceptable noise level. Let’s figure out what that will be by making a noise meter.
Using your PAC does not mean that your child will gladly do what you say. But without the blame and threats used to get compliance (If you don’t get to bed now, there will be no TV for the rest of the week.), and without the implied unrealistic expectations (You should know that TV is not good for you), children will more likely respond to your benevolent authority, feel less put upon to understand what they shouldn’t be expected to understand, and thus be more willing to cooperate.
When you have confidence in your authority, there is no need to rage in despair. Use your PAC, and then simply guide your child with a calmer and therefore more effective approach.
When you threaten with If you don’t…then I will…, you wield power over your child and your child won’t like it. He might do what you say right then, but the long term fallout can be great. With a threat or a punishment you send the expectation to your child that he should know that it’s time for bed, that he can’t go to that party, that you need it quiet in the car. This is unfair and confusing to a child who simply doesn’t know, nor should he—he’s a kid.
When you hold appropriate expectations that your child can meet, she feels accepted, understood and respected. Cooperation is likely to follow. Too much time is generally spent on criticism and judgments of what children are doing wrong. No one responds well to that.
Your parental authority is your right when you become a parent. Use it responsibly.
And have a P eaceful, A ccepting and C alm approach with your children.
- Be more, teach less. Don’t try to teach your children lessons all the time. That only leads to franticness and worry. Children learn best from modeling and in those precious moments when they feel connected to parents during “just being” time.
- Accept the child you have. “If only…”, “Why me?”, and “He never…” can fill your days and keep you disconnected from your children—and your lives. Pay attention to who your child is and what she is attempting to say instead of wishing she were different.
- Practice mindfulness. You don’t have to sit and meditate to be in the moment. Simply focus on the dish you are washing, the floor you are vacuuming, each article of clothing you are folding, the words and emotions your child is expressing—right now—without jumping to conclusions.
- Pay attention even when what you hear is unpleasant. Your child is always attempting to tell you something but doesn’t have the maturity to say it in a way you can easily understand. His words and actions often need interpreting. Don’t take them literally.
- Practice “the pause”. Don’t react to teach your child a lesson. Stop, breathe, wait, and think. Your automatic reaction will be ineffective at best, damaging at worst. Breathe to give yourself a chance to drop back into your body. Then come back to it when you’re both calm.
- Establish unplugged zones and times of the day. Make sure the rules are established together and are agreed on by all. For instance, cellphone-free zones in the car, mealtime, family playtime, and at bedtime.
- Once you have tech devices in your home, don’t spend time fighting to get your children off them. Set time structures together and allow self-regulation. Encourage family time. Proficiency in the tech world is your children’s future.
- Under-schedule your children. Put value on hanging out and being bored. Creativity doesn’t arise when a child is scheduled and adult-directed.
- Less toys, more creativity. Stay away from talking toys and get ones that allow invention. When your child wants to buy something, ask what it is she wants to do and how she can make that happen.
- Accept yourself. Negative beliefs about yourself, “I’m not good enough,” “I can’t do this”, etc. come from messages you learned from your parents when their buttons got pushed. They are not true. You only thought they were.
- Accept your emotions as well as your child’s. Despite what you may have learned, emotions are ALWAYS okay. Don’t be tempted with feel-good-now solutions. Even when depressed and despondent, stay with it. Emotions teach and can be a call to action. Never blame them on your child.
- Positive self-talk. Get in the habit of staying present with something like, “I can deal with this”, “This too shall pass”, “It’s not the end of the world” or “I’m having a hard time right now.” The one constant of parenting is that everything changes.
- Stop yourself from catastrophizing. It’s easy to soar into the future in a nano-second when your children provoke fear and anger. Check yourself when you have thoughts like, “He’s going to be in jail by the time he’s fifteen.” “She’ll never have any friends.” “He’s never going to finish anything.” We convince ourselves of the worst.
- Learn to say no. Many mothers were brought up to believe that doing for others equals being a good person. Parenting is the toughest job there is. Especially for working parents, prioritize the needs of your family and yourself to stay focused and present.
- Care for yourself. You cannot be present when you wish you were elsewhere. You can’t fuel your child until you fuel yourself first. Find ways and times to do for you so you feel better when you are being a parent. Don’t buy into the old “selfish” bit.
We all know that childhood obesity is a problem in the United States. Weight issues have been linked to early onset heart disease, diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure and joint problems, not to mention teasing and discrimination at school. But the threat of obesity shouldn’t blind us to the beauty of our children, just as they are right now.
Our daughters are more vulnerable to weight issues than our sons. Girls are bombarded with images of stick-thin beauties, unrealistically proportioned dolls, early dieting advice, and popular media that equate thinness and physical beauty with worth. Although boys are endangered by obesity too, they are not so endangered as girls are by unrealistic expectations.
It’s easy for parents to get caught up in the hype. We want our kids to reflect well on us. We’d like them to be perfect. We don’t want our kids to embarrass us. And we don’t want people to think we let our girls get fat.
So we over-react. We make our girl’s appearance a big deal. We fuss over slimming clothes. We buy her diet books. We give her grief any time she eats. We make fun of her, thinking somehow we are doing her a favor. “Better coming from me,” one mother said. “She might as well get used to it.”
It’s obvious this is abuse. It’s no surprise that most of the misery of being overweight is caused by unkind behavior. And, since eating makes us feel better – that’s why there’s “comfort food,” after all – heaping abuse on a chubby child doesn’t make her any slimmer. It only makes everything worse.
So, what to do? If your child – of any age – is overweight, how should you respond?
- Quality time. Spend time with your daughter doing fun stuff. Physical activity is great – walking, bicycling, doing yoga – but anything you both enjoy is fine. Could you both take up painting or garage sale-ing? Could you start a business? Turn off the television and do good things. Spend time with your daughter and you’ll send her the message, “I love you and I think you’re terrific.”
- Quality food. Give up junk food and don’t let it in the house. Yes, your daughter may find other places to get it, but if it’s not at home you won’t be put in the position of standing guarding over it. Food – junk food – won’t appear to be more important than your child. And if everything at home is okay to eat, then eating at home is not a problem. This means, of course, that no one in your home eats junk food. Good.
- Quality support. If your child is dangerously overweight, get advice from your family doctor. But don’t take advice from your best friend, your worst friend, magazines, TV, and other unreliable, even dangerous sources. Shut your ears to comments intended to hurt. Know that your child’s happiness means more than others’ opinions. Be there for your girl.
At one time, body image issues were limited to teens. These days elementary school children – even preschool girls – talk about diets and worry about their weight. This is unnatural and unhealthy. This is something we adults have done to our kids. It’s time to stop.
The best way to encourage health is to encourage life: “Does this life make me look fat?”
“No, my dear. This life makes you look pretty and funny and very smart.”
My husband and I were taking a walk with our 21 month old grandson. For a short distance we needed to walk in the road.
“Hold my hand Sam. You have to hold my hand in the road.”
At first he did and then he had a different idea and pulled his hand away. I said, “Sam you have to hold my hand.”
He did not want to comply. So I picked him up as he was working hard to wriggle away from me and said,
“Sam you have to hold a hand in the road. You can hold Poppy’s hand or my hand, which do you choose?”
He stopped wriggling. I could see he was thinking. He then reached for Poppy and happily took his hand. Then he reached up for mine. For the rest of our walk he wanted to hold both our hands.
This is problem solving. Quite simple when you understand the principle. But impossible when you are stuck in the old mindset.
It worked because Sam wasn’t being forced to do something he didn’t want to do—and I got what I wanted. In other words, it worked for both of us—the #1 rule of problem solving.
When this kind of communication begins early in a child’s life, problem solving becomes second nature. You don’t even realize you’re doing it. When children trust that what they care about is important to you, even when you highly disagree, they are willing to listen to rules because they know nothing punitive or threatening is involved, and they will come out okay. No need to worry about getting in trouble, which keeps the child’s focus entirely on herself—the opposite of what you are trying to teach.
As children get older, problem solving gets more complex. If you have been parenting in the punitive mindset, believing that your child is being defiant and bad, switching to problem solving first requires a shift in your perception and then building trust so your child knows you are willing to see things differently. If she expects you will yell, take away her iPod, or disrespect her with degrading words, she will get quite clever at becoming parent deaf and defy everything in anticipation of attack.
In my scenario with Sam, my old mindset tells me,
Sam’s being defiant and disobedient. He’s not listening.
This of course provokes my anger toward Sam, which leads to my reactivity—control, domination—grabbing his hand with force and using a hard tone,
“You will hold my hand or we’re going back in the house! Don’t you even try to get away. It’s not safe. You have to do what I tell you.”
This works against his agenda and will most likely lead to a power struggle in which I have to fight to win (meaning he has to lose). He will begin to distrust me. Of course it’s not safe. Of course he has to hold my hand. But I can give him a way to comply with my wish without forcing his will and making him think he’s bad.
I need to understand that he’s not doing what he is doing on purpose to defy me. He’s doing what he wants. When I take it personally, I get my buttons pushed, and I react.
When I shift from assuming that he needs to be taught a lesson and listen to me, to understanding that he wants what he wants when he wants it—that’s his job, my mindset thinks,
Of course he doesn’t want to do what I’m telling him. He has another agenda.
When I think that way, I remain calm because he is behaving the way I expect him to. Therefore I can stay firm with my rule, mean what I say, yet do so without anger and blame and most likely gain a cooperative child.
Parenting a child doesn’t come with a handbook called “How to Parent”. Disciplining children is one of the most exhausting and overwhelming things you will ever to do. And since you are human, sometimes it is just too much, and you will get angry and lose it. It happens to all of us. But parenting when you’re angry is never a good idea. Haven’t you ever noticed that the more intense your anger gets, the worse your children’s behavior becomes? They react to the angry parent.
Children know how to push our buttons, which is precisely why it’s incredibly important to learn how to manage your anger. Here are 7 Anger Management Techniques to think about with child discipline:
- Give yourself a break. You are human, and therefore experience a wide range of emotions, even towards your own kids. One of those feelings sometimes is anger. It’s ok.
- Try, try, try not to take the bait. Your child will undoubtedly throw out some zinger comment that he knows will get you riled up. Don’t let it…if you do, he will know that he has control over you and will continue this behavior endlessly.
- That means take a step a back. Sometimes we’ve taken the bait before we even realize it’s happened. So stop…take a deep breath, and reassess what is going on. Walk away if you need to. Sometimes it is necessary so that things don’t continue to escalate. Come back when you feel calm and collected.
- Use your words to communicate clearly what is going on. For example, “I’m very angry right now. I’ve asked you three times to put your toys away, and you haven’t done it. It’s very frustrating for me when I have to say things over and over before you listen. And when I’m angry and frustrated, I tend to yell.”
- Take better care of yourself. When you are tired, stressed, and hungry, your patience and tolerance will be low, and you will find yourself snapping at everyone. Get some sleep, eat a healthy meal, and take a walk or a run.
- Let it go. I know it’s hard…but you need to learn to let go of what’s already happened…that’s in the past. Move on from it, or one little problem in the morning can ruin your entire day.
- ASK FOR HELP! There is nothing wrong with asking for help from a spouse, family member, friend, or babysitter. We’ve all been there. Nobody can do any job 24/7 without a break from time to time. Take one. You deserve it.