Creative Child

5 Ways to Handle Defiance

by Rebecca Eanes

Parenting is supposed to be joyful. No one welcomes a child into their hearts and homes with the expectations of extremely frustrating, hair-pulling days. And yet, sometimes children display frustrating defiant behaviors. These behaviors often trigger us in ways that cause us to be less than our best selves, and we end up in cycles of punishment and disconnection, but punishment doesn’t address the root cause. We need to understand what causes defiance and disruptive behaviors so that we can heal it at its source.

Sometimes these behaviors are developmentally normal. We tend to look at defiance as naughtiness when often brain development is the cause. Young children still very much operate from their middle brain - the emotions center. Their behavior is guided by their emotions and impulses. The rational, logical, sequencing, cause and effect part of their brain is just coming online around the age of 4 and is very underdeveloped, taking decades to reach full maturity.

So, when you say, for example, clean up your toys, and your child’s impulse is to play, it's hard for them to stop and reason why they should pick up their toys. I'm not saying she should be allowed to not clean up, but just that we frame the behavior as what it is. When we frame it this way, it allows us to be more calm, rational, and compassionate, and to approach with a problem-solving mindset.

Defiance can also be a heart issue - a signal that the child is feeling detached or disconnected from their attachment figures. When parents use punishment, such as Time-Out, the recurring fear of separation and social isolation breaks down our attachment with them, and when connection is lost, influence is lost. What you then experience is the counterwill instinct. Neufeld Institute faculty member and author Deborah MacNamara explains that counterwill is the instinct to resist, counter, and oppose someone who they feel is controlling or coercing them. Children are designed to be directed by people they are attached to - which makes them prone to resist people who they are not connected to.”

In addition, defiance may be a sign of emotional distress. According to Psychology Today author, Daniel Flint, “Defiant behavior could be rooted in emotional distress. Specifically, children may behave defiantly in an attempt to control a situation where they feel anxious and helpless. Additionally, when children experience stress or even sadness, they may also display defiant behaviors as a result of feeling unable to communicate their own internal state in a socially appropriate manner.” Finally, it may also be a symptom of depression or of traumatic stress, neither of which can be punished away and must be treated appropriately.

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