Defiance: What causes it and what to do about it.

By Karen DeBolt | 10th May 2010 | Filed under Parenting, Relationships, Techniques

 Videogame versus Homework

So, 10 year old John is sitting in front of the video game as usual. He’s making those frustrated sounds he makes when things are not going his way in the game. Mom realizes that it’s time for him to start his homework, so she says, “Hey, time to start your homework.”

Mom hears no response. It is as though she never said a word. So, she says, louder this time, “Homework time! Save your game.” This time he says “Wait a minute! I can’t stop now until I beat this boss, mom!”

Mom is reasonable so she says, “Okay five minutes, then you need to come do homework.” He says with some attitude “Whatever!” Now mom is starting to lose her patience. “Hey, I said five minutes. No attitude or the game goes off now!” He is silent this time.

In five minutes or maybe more if mom got distracted doing something else, she goes back to see that he is still playing, and now he is obviously doing something else—in other words he’s finished with the boss and is now doing something else. This time Mom says quite loudly lest he doesn’t “hear” her again. “John Michael turn that off now! Right this minute young man!” He says “No! Mom you are so mean all the time! Why are you yelling at me?”

By this time, mom has completely lost her own temper. . . Eventually, the video game is turned off and the homework gets done, but mom is angry, John is angry, and mom is wondering what the heck is wrong that she can’t get her child to do anything without have a battle royale.

What the heck?

There are some very specific reasons why some children are more likely to be defiant than others. These things have very little to do with a specific diagnosis although there are a few that seem to pop up frequently—ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Mood Disorders, but there are plenty of kids who would not fit a particular diagnostic category yet are extremely hard to parent due to almost constant defiance. These particular challenges involve a set of skills called Executive Functions which are delayed or completely missing.

Executive Functions

Executive Functions are a series of skills that help a person to organize their lives. This includes things like time management, prioritizing tasks, organizing, transitions, and impulse control. So what do these skills have to do with your child being defiant? Basically, if a task is needing one or more of these skills then that task is going to be more challenging for your child which may cause him to refuse rather than make the huge effort necessary to accomplish this task that seems easy to you and me.

Let’s go back to our video gamer who is refusing to do his homework. There are several Executive Functions in play here.

Time management – John doesn’t realize how long 5 minutes is, and he may be under estimating how long it will take to do his homework so he doesn’t understand his mom’s urgency.
Prioritization – John doesn’t prioritize his mother’s feelings, his homework, and his winning of the game he is playing in a way that works well for his life. The game will be there the next day and the day after that, but the homework is due tomorrow.
Transitions – John has a very hard time transitioning from a very pleasurable activity to a not so pleasurable activity like homework.
Impulse Control – John allowed himself to say to his mom “Whatever!” when she made a request of him. Most people have thoughts like these all the time, but John has a hard time not saying them out loud. It’s like a filter is missing.

All of these functions are necessary just to get from game play to homework. Actually, completing homework takes all of these and even more!

So how do I help my child?

While these challenges may be life long, it is possible with some specific interventions to help children to learn ways to cope with their challenges so that they are not so difficult. In the above example here are some ways that mom could have set things up differently that would have made things quite a bit easier.

  • Rather than call out from another room – go and touch him on the shoulder, use his name and in a calm voice say exactly what you expect him to do and when. For example, “John, I want you to finish with this boss, then turn off your game and come to the table to start homework.”
  • Using a timer – by using a timer, your child doesn’t need any reminders from you—when the alarm goes off that’s it. It takes you out of the loop and puts the control back on him.
  • When he begins to move in the right direction, then use a specific praise statement to acknowledge that he is doing what you asked him to do. “John! You turned off your game! Way to go! (Give a high five)
  • If this is still not completely resolving the problem, then have a heart to heart discussion when you are both calm about your concerns and encourage him to talk to you about his concerns, and then see if you can come to an agreement. “John, I expected you to do A, B, and C, but that did not happen. What’s up with that?”

Staying calm

The hardest part, but one of the most important parts is to remain calm. Remember that your child is doing his best right now even if that best is not what you would hope for at this point. By remaining calm, you will send a message to your child that you are in control, that you care about him, and most importantly you will be creating a better relationship with your child.

Comments Off