Defying Defiance

By Karen DeBolt | 14th Jun 2011 | Filed under Parenting, Reflections, Relationships, School help, Social Skills, Techniques

With the end of the school year drawing to a close, I have been getting lots of parents contacting me regarding their child’s defiance at school. Sometimes this is an ongoing problem, but often it seems to be escalating now or coming up for the first time. This doesn’t really surprise me. Defiance in children is often misunderstood as being about “willful disobedience” or about “trying to drive authority figures crazy” when that is very often not even close to what is going on in the child’s mind.

Allie (not a real child) is a bright and talented 9 year old who is often found starring out the window in the classroom and spinning in fast circles on the playground. Allie often struggles with back talking at home, but does usually doesn’t make a lot of waves at school. This week Allie began to refuse to do things that her teacher or playground attendants requested. She refused to come in from recess with the other children and had to be escorted back to the classroom, then she refused to work on the year end review worksheets that the teacher asked her to do.

What’s going on? 

Allie’s mom and dad were confused about why all the sudden Allie was having trouble at school and they worried that this would carry over to the new school year as well. In the moment, Allie would only answer an informative “I don’t know” with a frown and a shrug when asked about her behavior. Her teachers and parents were very concerned.

Putting on your detective hat 

Defiance can be somewhat complex to untangle at times because the causes are rarely what the adults in the child’s life might think. I find that the most helpful way to think about it is that the child is doing the best that she can in the moment, but is feeling too overwhelmed to do what is asked. This overwhelm can be caused by a myriad of things. Here are some ideas of things your child might say or do to give you some clues.

Anxiety/Perfectionism: “I don’t know how!” “I can’t do it right.” “Its too hard.” “You do it.” “I can’t do it without <the certain color crayon or other supply>”

Sensory Overload: “Its <too loud>, <smells bad>, <that this tag hurts>” Child may hold ears or nose or other sensing organ for protection. Child may bang head, bang into walls(sensory seeking), may shut down, flap hands, or stiffen fingers (sensory defensive)

Emotional: “She did it on purpose!” Uncontrolled emotional outbursts of crying or yelling over things that seem small to others. Holding onto grudges.

Social Skills: May not recognize authority of teachers, parents, etc. Might be upset over a perceived slight or even a righteous bullying experience. Only sees her own point of view and cannot understand another person’s point of view.

Executive functioning: May be overwhelmed with other responsibilities or perceived responsibilities and unable to properly prioritize.

These will hopefully give you some places to start in exploring with your child her reasons for not doing what she has been told to do. As your child becomes more self aware and better able to communicate her needs she will be able to express her reasons for refusing so that problem solving will become easier for both of you. The key is to ask with empathy so that she more likely to communicate with you and then you can begin problem solving.

Now what? 

Once Allie’s parents were able to have calm information gathering session with Allie they found out a few things that they did not know before. Allie had problems with some girls on the playground and she was very upset about that situation, so that is why she was refusing to come in from the playground and return to class where those girls were. Allie’s parents informed the teacher who did some work with Allie and these girls to help them work out their problems.

So Allie was getting hit from many sides at once which went a long way towards her “defiance.” Allie was having strong emotions regarding the problem with her classmates on the playground. Allie was also feeling that she was not able to do the work in the class room perfectly due to her upset, so she refused to do that as well.

Can you see how punishing Allie for “defiance” would not be helpful in changing her behavior? Through understanding and problem solving, you will be able to help your child to learn how to communicate her needs and problem solve rather than just shutting down and yelling “NO!”

This will take some work, but in the long run you will have a stronger relationship with your child and your child will become skilled at problem solving and self advocating which is bound to build self esteem as well.

 

Its a big win for both of you!

 

Sounds great? or think I’m all wet? Let me know by leaving a comment.

 

 

 

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