You: “Please put your things away.”
Your child: “I’m busy. I’ll do it later.”
You: “You need to do your homework.”
Your child: “It’s stupid. I’m not doing it!”
You: “You’re not allowed to go to that party. You’re grounded.”
Your child: “NO! I’m not grounded! I’m going!”
Does it ever feel like your child or teenager has an answer for everything—and usually takes the exact opposite position on what you’ve just said? Many kids struggle with authority, and have trouble following limits or rules, complying with requests and or generally are disrespectful to others in society. Some wear their defiance on their sleeves and are angry in their refusal (How dare you tell me what to do?!). Others are more subtle and simply “dig their heels in.”
“Why do some kids fight so hard against authority, as if giving up control is equal to drowning?”
What’s Your Child’s Style of Defiance?
On the other hand, defiance may be hard to pinpoint. Your daughter appears to follow your rules initially, but then goes behind your back and does something completely different. The fight doesn’t come when the directive or rule is given but instead it comes later, after she’s been caught disobeying. Whatever a child’s style of defiance may be, it can leave parents, teachers and other authority figures feeling frustrated, angry and unsure how to respond.
Why do some kids fight so hard against authority, as if giving up control is equal to drowning? Possibly because that’s exactly how it feels to them. We often look to the why in order to figure out how to change the behavior. Personality can certainly play a role – some people hate rules and authority their whole lives. Other factors can include depression, anxiety, ADHD or other conditions that may contribute to a child struggling with behavior.
In some cases, we may never be able to determine exactly why a child is making certain choices or behaving a certain way. Adults often spend a great deal of time trying to identify potential triggers to a child’s defiance. In fact, there may be multiple triggers: being told “no,” facing a limit or rule, or feeling jealous or uncomfortable can certainly contribute to defiant behavior. Professionals use the term Oppositional Defiant Disorder (O.D.D.) to describe a child whose defiant behavior has escalated to the point that it has become a pattern.
It can be helpful to identify triggers to educate and support your child so she might change her behavior. (For more on this, read How to Find the Triggers That Set Your Child Off.) But the fact is, the world and society aren’t going to go out of their way to avoid “triggering” your child during the course of her life. Regardless of the reasons we struggle, society has expectations. As parents, it’s our job to prepare our kids for life in the Real World. And the Real World often doesn’t take kindly to individuals who constantly challenge and defy authority.
So what can we do, as parents trying to raise a child into a productive member of society—a person who thinks for themself, yet isn’t always fighting authority or refusing to comply with rules?
1. Don’t fall into the trap of excuses and blame. When an issue comes up with your child, stay focused on the topic – your child’s behavior and the potential consequences. For example, your child might say, “I didn’t do my homework because the teacher didn’t explain what we were supposed to do.” He blames his refusal to do homework on his teacher, and says the teacher doesn’t treat him fairly in class. Our advice to his parent: Try not to get caught up in the idea that Johnny’s teacher “isn’t fair.” There’s lots of injustice in the world and Johnny will encounter it frequently – as we all do. Stay focused on the behavior (Johnny’s refusal to do his work) and the potential consequences (failing his class). You can say, “It sounds like you’re blaming your teacher for the fact that you didn’t do your homework…but it’s your responsibility.”
2. Don’t fall into emotional traps. It’s easy to get caught up in the emotion of your child’s defiance. They’re upset, you’re upset and sometimes teachers or other adults are upset. Again, it takes the focus off the topic at hand. Don’t personalize what your child is saying or doing—just stay as objective as you can and focus on the matter at hand.
3. Teach your child to think. Kids who defy authority are often reacting to adults and rules, rather than making conscious, deliberate choices. They don’t take time to think their actions through to what the potential consequences might be for their behavior. Weighing decisions and consequences, creating a list of pros and cons and then making a well thought-out choice is one of the most valuable skills your child can learn. It’s never too early to start teaching your child how to evaluate situations. So the next time she makes a comment like, “I’m not going to study for the test,” instead of getting caught up in emotion (which is natural for parents), ask her questions instead: “What might happen if you choose not to study?” If she responds with, “Nothing,” try to stay calm and continue with questions rather launching into a lecture or fight. You might ask, “Could you get a lower score, or even fail the test—or the class?” The point of the questions is not to interrogate, but to teach your child to think rather than react.
4. Remember that consequences are a part of life. Whether they are natural consequences – something that occur naturally as a direct result of your child’s actions – or consequences that you provide, it’s how your child will learn about life. Allow them to occur even when your instincts shout out to save your child from being uncomfortable.
Back to School Note:
School offers daily opportunities for conflict when a child defies authority. You might think of school as a preparation for the future workplace environment your child will potentially encounter. There are principals, teachers (bosses) and peers (co-workers). There are rules, expectations and rewards. You may be dreading the start of school, anticipating phone calls home about your child’s behavior.
Here are a few suggestions to keep in mind for the upcoming year:
Remember: school is your child’s job, not yours. Whenever possible, allow your child to remain responsible for his or her behavior and performance. As a parent, you can encourage and support your child. If he asks for help because he’s struggling, you may provide assistance or arrange tutoring. But it’s your child’s job to remain motivated. We’ve known well-intentioned parents who completed a child’s homework so she would receive credit or lied and said a child spent time reading when he didn’t. Remember, your child is learning habits for a lifetime. In fifteen years, his co-worker won’t write his reports for him!
Keep the focus on your child when communicating with the school. When a child defies authority, teachers and principals may try to hold you accountable for her behavior. Why? Because your child doesn’t care (or is acting like she doesn’t). School staff will look to someone who does care, in order to change the behavior. Often, that turns out to be the parent. If you find that happening, redirect the focus back to holding your child accountable as much as possible. Yes, there are some states where parents are held accountable now for a child’s truancy. In those cases, you’ll want to protect yourself as much as possible. But in general, when it comes to not following the rules or completing classwork, remind school staff that you want your child to learn these life lessons now. You are all on the same page – working toward teaching your child to be a productive member of society. What will his consequence be for certain behaviors? Detention? Suspension? Staying in from recess? Even though it may be hard to see your child uncomfortable, that’s the only way he will make the choice to change his behavior.
Make sure you are doing your part. Yes, your child is responsible for her behavior and choices. But make sure you’re also meeting your responsibilities as a parent. This means ensuring your child has the tools necessary to do her “job” as a student: materials, support and encouragement. If your child is younger or struggles to remember things, you may need to prompt her by asking if she’s completed homework. There’s a difference between prompting in order to support her education and rescuing from having to do the work by doing it for her.
One final note: On the surface, it might sound like a great idea to teach our kids how to comply with authority all the time, without questioning it. But in doing so, we would be losing many of our “rebels,” the individuals who challenge society’s status quo and teach us about ourselves and our own values. We want our children to learn to be “critical thinkers.” The key is to encourage that independent thinking while also teaching our kids to be respectful and think through the consequences before they act.
Kimberly Abraham, LMSW, has worked with children and families for more than 25 years. She specializes in working with teens with behavioral disorders, and has also raised a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW, is the mother of four and has been a therapist for 15 years. She works with children and families and has in-depth training in the area of substance abuse. Kim and Marney are the co-creators of The ODD Lifeline for parents of Oppositional, Defiant kids, and Life Over the Influence, a program that helps families struggling with substance abuse issues. Their first children's book, Daisy: The True Story of an Amazing 3-Legged Chinchilla, teaches the value of embracing differences and was the winner of the 2014 National Indie Excellence Children's Storybook Cover Design Award.