Aha! Parenting Blog

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Handling Defiance: You're Not the Boss of Me!

 

"Dr. Laura...How should I respond when he yells 'You're not the boss of me!'?"
-Ariel

Defiance. It's guaranteed to push a parent's buttons. After all, we're supposed to be in charge, right? Defiance rubs our nose in the fact that we can't really control another person, whether he's three or thirteen, unless we use force. And who wants to be that parent?

Because when we overreact to defiance, we escalate the battle.  Since force creates resistance, either openly or in a passive-aggressive form, it's ultimately a losing strategy. (You might win the battle, but you'll lose the war.) 

So what can a parent do about defiance?

Cure it at the source! Kids are defiant for a reason. Often, they feel controlled and pushed around, and they need some positive ways to feel powerful and capable in their lives. 

Because a defiant child is rejecting the parent as leader, at least at this moment, defiance also indicates that the child feels disconnected from the parent. Maybe the relationship needs some repair work, or maybe she's just very upset at the moment, and since she's in "fight or flight" we look like the enemy. 

Punishment will just make the disconnection worse. It will make the child feel more unfairly pushed around. And it won't help her with the upset. So you have to address defiance, but you can't solve it with discipline. You solve defiance with connection.

Your approach will depend on how old your child is. Here's an age-by-age guide.

Toddlers

Toddlers are still figuring out that they can be themselves without saying No to everything. Although we as parents sometimes forget this, even small humans are separate people who have the right to their opinions and need to protect the integrity of their own "selves." That's why they're so fiercely committed to "NO!" and "Do it myself!" Their defiance is best handled by:

  • Let her know you hear: "You say NO bath, I hear you...." (Sometimes, that's enough to get a toddler cooperating happily.)
  • Give her a hug. (Often, toddlers just need to reconnect.)
  • Decide how flexible you are: "Ok, we can just wash your hands and face today" or "And you are so very dirty, we do need a bath, so let's find a way to make it work for you."
  • Kindly insist on your limit if you feel it's essential: "You're crying because you don't want a bath....I am right here....You can cry as much as you need to.....When you're done crying, let's find your doll so she can take a bath with you, I know you like to wash her hair."

Preschoolers

Preschoolers know the rules. When they're defiant, they're saying "Mom, Dad, I'm upset but I can't really express it....So I'm going to be as bad as possible to get you to pay attention...I am going to DEFY you!" Their defiance is best handled by:

  • Remind yourself that his defiance is a bid for reconnection, not something that requires discipline.
  • Reconnect through play, if you can. Try being mock-outraged to get your child giggling: "Excuse me...WHAT was that? Did I hear you say NO? You WON'T do what I said? We'll see about that, won't we? En Garde!" After your pillow fight or wrestling match, your preschooler will have giggled out his upset and reconnected with some oxytocin released by all that roughhousing; he'll be ready to do what you ask.
  • If he's too upset to play, listen. "You're saying no, you won't go to soccer practice? Something must be upsetting you about soccer practice....What do you think it will be like if you go?"
  • If his upset persists, set a kind limit and welcome his tears. He might just need to get all those feelings out with a good cry in your warm presence, after which he'll feel reconnected and able to cooperate.

Elementary Schoolers

Elementary Schoolers respond with defiance when they feel that we're unfair. When kids argue all the time, they're saying they don't feel heard or connected. Their defiance is best handled by:

  • Stop, Drop (your agenda) and Breathe. Since your buttons are pushed, you need to get calm before you address the defiance.
  • Remind your child that disrespect is out of bounds: "You know we don't speak to each other that way. You must be very upset."
  • Consider that when kids are defiant it's a relationship problem. You're losing your child somewhere, so he's not willingly following you. Are you being unfair? Are you not listening? Are you losing his respect by having your own tantrums?
  • Reconnect by listening and reflecting: "You're saying No because you don't think it's fair? Hmm....Maybe I'm missing something here. Tell me more."
  • Empathize: "Oh, so you feel....You wish...It must feel so hard that...."
  • Look for win/win solutions. "So you want...and I want...How about we...?"

Preteens and Tweens

Preteens and Tweens begin experimenting with defiance because they hear it from peers, and to see where the limits are. Their defiance is best handled by:

  • Stop, Drop (your agenda) and Breathe. Since your buttons are pushed, you need to get calm before you address the defiance.
  • Reinforce your expectation about the standard of respect in your family: "Ouch! You know we don't speak to each other that way."
  • Give your child a chance to correct herself while you reopen communication: "I know you didn't mean to be disrespectful. I do want to hear what you have to say. Can we try a do-over?"
  • Consider your approach. No one likes to be told what to do. And yet research shows that the average parent gives hundreds of orders every day, most in a negative tone. If your preteen is bristling, consider how you can help her step into more responsibility, instead of feeling ordered around.

Teens

Teens are defiant when they feel disconnected or have lost respect for us. Their defiance is best handled by:

  • Translate your teen's defiant words. Your child may sound like she never wants to see you again, but underneath her rudeness, she's saying "I'm all alone out here and pretty miserable...I wish you'd find a way to come out in the cold and get me, because I don't know how to find my way back."
  • Stay compassionate. Say "Ouch! That was pretty rude...You must be very upset to speak to me that way....I try to always speak respectfully to you....What's going on, Sweetie?" (If you realize your role modeling of speaking respectfully has been lacking, admit that, apologize, promise to do better, and state your expectation that everyone in the family needs to turn over a new leaf.)
  • Stay compassionate while he expresses his upset: "Wow...I see...I'm so sorry...I didn't realize...Thanks for telling me." Just keep breathing and stay calm. He needs to tell you about all his built-up feelings that have been making him feel so disconnected from you.
  • Find a way to re-connect. Listen. Reflect. Seek to understand. Tell him how much you love him and how much he means to you. Find a common ground. Problem-solve so you both get your needs met. Model the respect you expect.

Whatever your child's age, respect his right to refuse sometimes.

Maybe he's studying for a test or only has five minutes to finish building his castle before bath time. If he cooperates most of the time, and asks respectfully, why isn't it ok for him to ask for special dispensation tonight? The more he feels you'll listen when he makes his request, the less he needs to resort to defiance to express his wishes. Of course, that doesn't mean you don't put your foot down when you need to. But you never need to be mean about it; that just breeds more defiance.

Finally, notice that defiance is an opportunity, not an emergency.

Most of us get so triggered by our child's defiance that we automatically come down like a sledge hammer. After all, we wouldn't have been allowed to act that way when we were young. But defiance is like a red light on the dashboard of your car; a signal that something is wrong that you need to fix. What's wrong isn't the child, but the relationship, and you fix that by reconnecting, not by attacking. 

So the next time your child is defiant, remind yourself that you don't have to attend every power struggle to which you're invited. Try setting a clear limit about the standard of respect in your house, while at the same time reconnecting. Be grateful that your child's defiance gave you a warning about how much distance had crept in between you. Use the opportunity to change the course of your relationship. And maybe, of his life.

See this article in Chinese.


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