Dealing with defiant child

The following is a question that I recently answered online on a parenting board; this was asked anonymously.  Since I felt it was such an important issue with so many misconceptions surrounding it, I spent a long time composing a response and am sharing it here.

>>my oldest is 11.5 and I need advice He has been going to sleep late and then going late to school because of it. He just called me up from school to ask if he could go somewhere that finishes late. I told him no – because he left for school after 9:30 he cannot be home late tonight as a consequence. His reply was “your going to get it mommy” and I know if he says this he will come home and do everything possible to make my life miserable including hitting his sisters. How would you deal with this? this is a difficult child we are dealing with.<<

I don’t generally have time to respond at length to parenting issues on discussion boards, but I still sometimes find it interesting to see the questions and responses.  In this case, the advice given by another poster was a hard line discipline approach comprised of escalating consequences to push him into obedience and submissions, and a number of posters agreed that this was the way to handle this situation.  I, on the other hand, felt it would be disastrous in the situation described, and addressed why I felt that approach wasn’t beneficial or productive.  Here’s what I wrote:

“Firstly, there are so many things about your post that are important – to understand how attachment, child dominance, and the roots of frustration and aggression all go together. It’s more like something for a book than a post, but I’m going to share the following to flesh it out a little bit.

A parent is meant to have the lead in a parent/child relationship, and when a child is is the lead, the roles have been reversed. The child calls the shots, feels in control, and the parent responds from the passive position. The dominant behavior you see is a sign of an alpha child rather than a reflection of the child’s personality. (Here’s something worth reading if you’d like more details on what an alpha child looks like.)

There are a number of steps involved in dealing with an alpha child, and one major step involves taking the lead – but you must simultaneously be dealing with the underlying attachment issues for this to be able to happen. What you’re describing absolutely is an attachment issue – realize that the reason taking things away has the potential to be effective (in the short term) is because your child is more attached to those things than to you – and using someone’s attachments against them is a very risky parenting strategy. 

Don’t think creating attachment and unconditional love means you become a doormat to them – this is a huge misunderstanding of the terms – you must have standards that you uphold, but you don’t give your child the message that you only love them when they behave according to your standards. Children must know we love them not matter what, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept whatever behavior they want to exhibit.  When you invoke consequences and keep upping the ante, when you use what they care about against them, you are desensitizing them to caring, not to respecting and loving you more.

As parents, we want to raise our children, not just control them. I’m not saying all of this as someone whose kids get away with whatever they want – not at all – but the tough love approach can only work unless you really work on the emotional connection aspect and are able to convey a clear message of love for the child as he is right now, otherwise you’re going to push your child further from you.  (When a person is pushed to do something beyond the level of his feelings of emotional connection, he’s going to respond with counterwill, which is a defensive reaction to any perceived coercion – and alpha children are full of counterwill. “I don’t care what you say/do, I’ll do what I want.”)

So to begin to deal with the aggression, the alpha behavior, etc, the first step is to emotionally connect with your child.  (Thwarted frustration turns into aggression when a child is unable to adapt and move to futility; a child can only move to futility when his heart is softened, which can only happen when he has a strong emotional connection with his primary caretaker.)  Flooding a child with frustration (eg consequences) who doesn’t have the ability to feel his feelings of disappointment and sadness is going to provoke him to aggression.

Basically, attachment is the primary thing to work on in the beginning because behavioral issues like these are symptomatic of deeper relationship problems.  Start by conveying your love, appreciation, and enjoyment of your child when around him.  He’ll be tough for a while, but your goal is to soften his protective shell and show him that you’re his ally, that you’re there for him and aren’t giving up on him no matter what.”

At this point, there were further responses by other mothers sharing their frustration with the difficulty in parenting these challenging children.  I could really feel the discouragement and a strong sense of despair, almost as if there was nothing to do for children like these – some mothers mentioned that their children had been to therapists and were on medication, but it wasn’t making a difference.  I was concerned, though, about what seemed to be an attitude of making the success of the relationship dependent on the child’s behavior.  So I wrote the following:

“It’s so, so challenging to have a difficult child, it’s so painful as a mother to feel like a failure, to feel that our best efforts are thrown in our face again. Maybe it would help if you were able to see the pain that is at the root of their behavior?  You’re seeing very hurt children who are afraid of rejection and feel very unloved at some level.

Don’t think of them as manipulative or trying to hurt you; it doesn’t serve you.  Everything a person does makes sense when you understand their developmental needs.  Children who are this tough on the outside have hardened their hearts because their deeper emotional desires for closeness with a parent weren’t being filled. I’m not saying that to guilt anyone, and I’ve had to admit the same thing in my own relationships with some of my children at times.  Being honest about where we’re lacking is the first step in finding an answer.

I have nine children and let me tell you, it doesn’t matter how perfectly what you did worked with everyone else. In the past I’ve made the mistake of insisting in my own mind when I’ve felt frustrated that it’s my child’s fault that he’s not acting the way he should because if all of my other kids were so wonderful, it can’t me me, right?  (And don’t you think a child feels this, no matter how nice you are on the outside? You bet they pick up those vibes.) Yes, it can and is me and my responsibility.  We have to get our egos out of the way and focus on what the child needs, not on getting the strokes we want.

The process of raising children is very individual and you have to find the specific key for the heart of every child.  It doesn’t matter if it looks like you’re doing everything right from the outside.  It doesn’t matter if it worked with all seventeen of your older children.  It doesn’t matter if your house is clean and you make nice meals or buy them nice clothes.  If your child doesn’t perceive it as an emotional deposit for him, if it doesn’t reach your child, it’s not right for him, and it’s the responsibility of a parent to find the key.

I spent a long time trying in my first post (ie the first part of this post) trying to figure out how to condense some very significant principles.  I did this rather than share specifics of how to address behavior, because when you get down to it, parenting is about who we are to a child, not what we do.  If you understand and address your child’s unseen needs, then it will be productive, and someone else using your same external strategy isn’t necessarily going to get the same results.

For children who are emotionally toughened as what has been described, they won’t back down, they will continue to escalate, and they will continue to distance themselves from you if you try to push consequences.  Connecting with your child emotionally is the only way you’re going to change things, and first and foremost, that means a change in the way you think of your child.  Stop blaming them for ruining what would otherwise be your wonderful life.  And then it means a change in the way you interact with your child.  And it’s going to mean learning to feel and express unconditional love for your child.  This is the process of growing with our children that we were put here for.”


21 thoughts on “Dealing with defiant child

  1. wow! very deep.
    just curios how you would deal with the immediate behaviors
    (ie in this case when the child threatened the mom with bad behavior)while working on the long term attachment.
    ps i would love to see more of these parenting philosephy posts

    1. This is the topic I write about that is closest to my heart, and I would so much love to write more about it. But I really don’t have the time to share the deeper insights into parenting in a way that they can be clearly understood that needs to be put into writing.

      1. I believe it’s irresponsible to say it’s a parents fault for their child’s behavior. I agree that parents can exacerbate behavioral issues but sometimes those issues are due to chemical imbalances. Also, adopted children present a whole other layer. So again I believe it’s irresponsible to blame parents then say I have no other information to offer. Parenting does not come with a handbook and when we factor in our own issues it’s not enough to say “it’s your fault”. Parents are reaching out because they need solutions. And maybe the other 17 children turned out ok due to a combo of parenting and personality. The truth is you can have a child that has a personality that clashes with yours, after all, they are people too although little ones. Parents seek answers because they are open to being wrong and have a desire to correct whatever the problem is but solely blaming a parent and suggesting that there be no consequences to a child’s actions is irresponsible. Most children are attached to toys or a phone, etc. more so than their parent, which is why parents take those privileges away for consequences. The most important factor is to be consistent. I do agree you have to tow the line and understand not to be punitive but rather allow the consequences to be natural to what the offense is. A child will always perceive consequences as “not being loved” because they only want what they want and that’s their motivation most times. Anyway, perhaps I could go on and on, but I don’t believe blaming parent is the answer either.

        1. CJ- welcome and thank you for your comment!

          I’m unsure what you read that caused you to feel I’m blaming the parents. Children are complex and it would be simplistic and very unfair to say parents hold all responsibility for a child’s behavior. Parents are doing the best they can and they deserve encouragement and appreciation for their efforts, not shame or blame. They also deserve honest feedback so they have the information they need to begin to remedy the issue.

          My approach to helping families is to look for at the deeper levels of where the behavior is coming from and to address the deeper issue. Doing this causes superficial levels of ‘bad’ behavior to improve and often disappear – a parent dealing with a situation similar to this very recently told me the results were ‘a miracle’. I understand that you look at this situation differently.

          To me, it would be irresponsible to give advice that sounds good, like imposing consequences, because if the root level issue isn’t dealt with, an action like this will backfire and cause more resistance and defiance later on. Consequences are a short term answer for superficial behavior that doesn’t address the child’s heart. When a child feels more connected to his phone or his stuff than his parents, that’s a significant part of the problem and addressing that will be a huge part of the answer.

          Thank you again for sharing your thoughts, I hope you’ll stick around!

  2. Great post!

    Can you share specific ideas of connecting to our children?
    I have 4 children with 4 different personalities, and its a struggle finding the key to each childs heart.

    1. Shana and eebee – your questions are great and I do address issues like these in my classes, but right now I’m so backed up with blog questions that I don’t know if/when I’ll be able to answer. Neither of your questions are black and white; there’s a lot I’d need to ask you first to give more than general answers. I’ll give a brief response, though.

      eebee – I do have suggestions about how to appropriately and clearly set boundaries but has to be done in a strong framework of love and acceptance. I’ve been concerned in the past that what I’ve written could too easily be taken out of context, since people reach for strength from external measures rather than find the strength inside themselves to look at things differently and change accordingly.

      Shana – a clue for you is to look at how your children show love to others. That’s the approach to their heart, since we all generally give love in the way that we want to receive it.

  3. Thank you Avivah for your deep rooted parenting insights. I am actually in the beginning of Dr. Newfeld’s book, so a lot of what you said really resonates with me. I am wondering though, as I haven’t yet gotten so far, but I generally do try to attach with my daughter, but there are times, currently, when I need to focus on other things (ie. bury my head in the computer, speak on the phone, etc.) and she vies for my attention, creating a power struggle. I’m not sure how to handle it, as she is an only child right now. Do you have any suggestions to help me understand this a bit better and what I can do to try to make it better for both of us?

    1. Naomi, I’m going to look into what’s involved with this after I give birth. I’ll be starting my next series locally next week, but realistically set up a teleconference by that point. Just know that if and when I go forward with a teleconference, people like you will be the reason!

        1. Naomi, thank you so much for this offer! For personal reasons, I decided to push off the series that was supposed to start tonight until after the chagim, but I’m definitely going to keep your offer in mind. :)

  4. I agree with you. You can’t use harsh discipline with someone who thinks you hate them, without reinforcing that idea. Rather first you must develope the relationship. Some times we as parents forget we are suppose to have a RELATIONSHIP with another HUMANBEING not train an animal. With our friends we find out who they are and use this information in ways that are pleasing to them. Why do we neglect to do this with our children. I am not saying we should have the same kind of relationship as with our friends but if it is important keep in mind our friend’s personality, how much more so with our children. Yes children are still developing thier personalities but that doesn’t mean you can try to bend them into a different personality any more then you can give a child a different body part. Thier personality is thier personality. Our job is not to change that personality but to enhance it, to help them become the best person they can be not the best person thier brother or nieghbor can be. Your child should not have to travel to find thier self as young adults. Rather they should already know who they are. They should have long ago found thierself in your eyes because You have been paying attention and you know who they are. Sorry for spouting off so much on your blog Avivah but this is a subject dear to my heart. Hope I have only enhanced what you already said.

    1. Rachel, you’re so right, and your comments weren’t spouting off but rather a valuable addition to what I wrote. Thank you for taking the time to share.

  5. hi avivah,
    I read your post on that parenting forum (and thanked you for it there). I agree with you wholeheartedly only I did not have the language to describe it so well. what works with our ‘difficult’ child is connecting with him. putting aside the ‘issue at hand’ and taking a step back and a deep breath. trying to love him in that moment. discipline can come later when we are all feeling safe and calm. it was in a moment like this one, the calm after the storm, that I knew deep in my soul that this child needs to be schooled at home.
    children, even misbehaving children, have needs that they dont always know how to verbalize. It is our job to uncover those needs and fill them. the difficult kids still love -and need to be loved by- their parents.
    I just got the book you recommended, cant wait to open it and start reading.
    thanks again!

    1. Hi, Meytal, welcome! I agree with all that you wrote, except I’d say it even more strongly: misbehaving or difficult *especially* need our love and acceptance.

      I don’t remember recommending a book, unless it was Gordon Neufeld’s Hold On To Your Kids. It’s the best book on parenting I’ve ever read, but it can be challenging to figure out practically what his suggestions are.

    1. I can’t say I’m such a great parent, just that I do my best to keep learning and understanding the needs of my children. It’s all a process.

      1. I know this is an old post but I just wanted to share how my husband was the type of kid who no punishment worked. He told me exactly what you said “When you invoke consequences and keep upping the ante, when you use what they care about against them, you are desensitizing them to caring, not to respecting and loving you more.”- he just stopped caring about anything because it was just too painful since he knew it would just be used against him. To be fair he sounds like he was “difficult”- the type of kid who just wouldn’t do his homework…It’s so sad. I was discussing this with someone who believes in using “big” punishments every once a while by taking away something that matters to them. She didn’t seem to understand when I told her what my husband said. I’m glad to hear someone else say it as well.

        As an aside I really want to thank you for this blog, when I read your posts I feel myself saying, yes yes, finally someone talking sense, it just resonates in such a deep way with me, thank you!

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