When a child is being defiant, it does not indicate that they are bad nor is it a sign of poor parenting. It is a completely normal and natural urge for a child to want to assert their autonomy. Doing the opposite of what they have been asked to do is the perfect way for them to take control of their independence. Resisting our requests is a part of a child’s development, the same way that learning to walk and talk is. Punishing them for wanting to do this, therefore, is like punishing them for existing. Instead, it is important for us to show acceptance; not of the behaviour, but of the child.
I can see where the temptation to punish comes from, though. For many of us, defiance was an unforgivable error growing up and something that was taken very seriously by our parents and other authority figures. Consequently the feelings that are evoked upon being defied by our own children are often hugely triggering. It can make us feel about them the same way we were made to feel about ourselves when we were navigating this phase of our childhood. We therefore feel compelled to fix them or teach them quickly as we worry they are, or will be, ‘bad’ and will not be able to integrate into society when older.
Furthermore, having a child do the exact opposite of what they have been asked can make us feel like our own sense of power and control has been undermined. Parents deal with external judgements on a daily basis based on the behaviours of their children. This pressure to feel in control of obedient children can push us to react more harshly than we might otherwise want to. Feeling like our children are out of control because they choose not to do what we have asked can make us feel inadequate as parents. Therefore, it is little wonder that parents seek to stamp out defiance as quickly as possible, often by applying a negative consequence or punishment.
One problem with using punishments or other negative consequences to implore our children to be compliant is that it fails to show them unconditional, mindful acceptance. Many people balk at hearing the word acceptance in response to a child’s behaviour as it is easy to confuse acceptance with permissive. When we show acceptance to a child who challenges us, it does not mean we should accept the behaviour.
According to Danny Penman Ph.D
Mindful acceptance, which arises from the full conscious awareness engendered by mindfulness meditation, is subtly different to the usual passive flavor of acceptance.
Acceptance in the context of mindfulness is not the passive acceptance of the intolerable. It is not “giving up,” nor is it resignation or spinelessness. Neither is mindfulness anything to do with detachment. Instead, acceptance is a pause, a period of allowing, of letting be, of clear seeing. Acceptance takes us off the hair trigger, so that we’re less likely to make a knee-jerk reaction. It allows us to become fully aware of our failings and difficulties, with all of their painful nuances, and to respond to them in the most skilful way possible. It gives us more time and space to respond. And often, the wisest way of responding is to do nothing at all.
Taking a pause and responding to defiant behaviour with mindful acceptance enables us to gently guide our children without sending the message that they are ‘bad’ or only conditionally acceptable. It is impossible to convince a child that we accept them and love them for who they are when we use punishment or any other form of mental manipulation to ensure a child does or does not do something. The message that there is something wrong with them is strong in punishments or punitive discipline and will not only cause resentment but also decrease a child’s sense of self.
Children base a lot of their self-confidence and self-acceptance on what is reflected to them by their parents.
According to Leon F. Seltzer Ph.D self-acceptance is strongly linked to the parental experience. He writes in Psychology Today:
In general, as children we’re able to accept ourselves only to the degree we feel accepted by our parents. Research has demonstrated that before the age of eight, we lack the ability to formulate a clear, separate sense of self–that is, other than that which has been transmitted to us by our caretakers. So if our parents were unable, or unwilling, to communicate the message that we were totally okay and acceptable–independent, that is, of our hard-to-control, sometimes errant behaviors–we were primed to view ourselves ambivalently. The positive regard we received from our parents may have depended almost totally on how we acted, and unfortunately we learned that many of our behaviors weren’t acceptable to them. So, identifying ourselves with these objectionable behaviors, we inevitably came to see ourselves as in many ways inadequate.
Therefore, if we see our children as bad because of their defiance then the child begins to believe that who they are must be wrong. They start to question how they feel and what they think. Our negative appraisal of them turns into a negative self-appraisal as they begin to see themselves as only conditionally acceptable.
In order to feel accepted, children then begin to play a role that is not authentic in order to gain approval or avoid disapproval. This can then set them up for a lifetime of never really being comfortable with themselves and looking externally for acceptance and validation. For some, that validation is hard to find growing up and this can spiral into a world of self harm and depressive tendencies.
So, whilst we might find defiance from our children incredibly hard to respond to with respect and understanding, it is vital to our children’s future emotional health that we try. So how do we handle defiance with respect and show our children that we accept them even when they defy us?
1. Alter perspective
Firstly, it is important that our aim in discipline is to guide, support and help our children to achieve success rather than to create a good, obedient child. When we understand that their asserting themselves through defiance is not a slight against us on a personal level nor a mark of a ‘bad’ child (now or in the future) but, rather, a developmentally normal part of growing up, this becomes easier to achieve. We can then view these occurrences as an opportunity for us to lovingly show our children the limits and then assist them to stay within those limits, thus building a strong connection that helps them feel comfortable in our leadership.
2. Rethink expectations
Sometimes, it might be that we have not provided a secure enough container for our limit-testing child. As kids get older and show us glimpses of their emotional maturity, we naturally start to think they should be able to make mature decisions more consistently and we loosen our limits accordingly. We can then develop unrealistic expectations that our children will respond willingly to verbal cues without adequate follow up. This essentially sets a child up for failure, and leads them into a path of defiance.
For many children, a verbal instruction is not enough to illicit a prompt, favourable response. So, rather than allowing a child to trigger us through their defiance, following up verbal requests with a physical offer to help may be necessary. Tightening up limits and being willing to provide that physical container will support a child to complete requests when it is important that they do so.
3. Empower children through choice
Defiance can be an indication that a child is trying to reclaim power or control over their life. It is beneficial to allow a child to have as much say over their basic care as possible whilst still maintaining your leadership. Offering simple choices or giving them some control over when, where or how a particular request can be carried out, often illicits greater cooperation than simply making an order.
Ensure that the choices offered are ones you are happy for them to select from eg. Would you like to brush your teeth now or in 3 minutes? Then, if they choose 3 minutes, be there after 3 minutes to let them know it’s time and ask if they would like to be carried to the bathroom or would they rather walk.
What do I do when my child defies me?
Learn from it. If a child has defied us, they are sending us a message and we need to figure out what that is and learn from it. Reacting to this defiance with punishment or illogical consequences will only serve to cause disconnect and (as mentioned earlier) damages their self-acceptance.
It might be that the younger child has been given too much freedom and needs us to tighten up to help them feel secure in our limits. The older child or teenager might be asking for a little more trust and responsibility as they come to terms with their burgeoning independence. They might need a conversation with us about what they feel they are ready for and we can communicate what we are comfortable with.
It could also be that a child is feeling disconnected or misunderstood and needs us to spend time with them; notice them and show appreciation for who they are in that moment.
How does this play out in real life?
This week, my children were struggling to follow instructions and stick to limits that had been verbally set for them. I recognised that, as parents, we have become a little complacent and our expectations of our children have risen to a level above which they could successfully manage. We were expecting them to self-manage and come in from their afternoon play with their neighbours, for example, without a challenge.
My husband found this particularly triggering as his first few requests were ignored and finally, when they ran from him and made a game of his ever- escalating stern requests to come in for their baths, he lost his cool. The defiance triggered emotions in him that meant the children were carried unceremoniously into the bath and put through this normally connecting care-giving moment with much disconnection.
We discussed later that what children needed from us was understanding that defiance is a normal part of their growth and development. They needed more help with the limit both physically and emotionally. They needed us to step up confidently and in a way that indicated that we accepted them. We didn’t accept the behaviour and they WOULD have to come in for their bath but we accepted and understood them and their needs, even if they wanted to defy us.
A more connective and respectful method for bringing them in from their play would have been to give them a time-warning, and then stay and connect with their play before giving them the final cue to come in. By being there to gently corral them through the doors, we would be better able to help them achieve success. If they still ran, it would have been possible to make a game of it – chase them, catch them and laugh with them as they ran whilst gently explaining it is time to come in.
I had a chance to do this the next day. My 5 year old went outside after dinner to grab her water bottle before bed with the expectation that she would come straight back in. Knowing that she has a tendency to get distracted, I set her up for success by following her out. She found her bottle and as expected, made her way towards the trampoline to have a quick jump. I was there to help her back inside and she seemed to appreciate that I had made the effort to support her in this way. There was only a playful complaint before a game of chasey into the house.
By responding to defiance in a “no big deal” manner whilst at the same time helping children stick to the limit that’s been set, their sense of acceptance is not jeopardised. They will understand that we will be there to ensure they are following our instructions when it is required but they won’t get the message that there is something inherently wrong with them as they might do when we act exasperated or resort to punishments, threats or even bribes and rewards to ensure they comply with us.
My parenting is inspired by Magda Gerber’s RIE approach which I learned of through Janet Lansbury’s blog. If you are interested in learning more you can find some good information here or I highly recommend these books (affiliate links)
Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect (2nd Edition) ~ Magda Gerber
Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting ~ Janet Lansbury
No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame ~ Janet Lansbury