Ask - Don't Tell: Tips for Parents with Defiant Children

Autonomy carried to its extreme gives rise to defiant behavior where a child refuses to be controlled by anybody. Parents often get locked in conflict cycles with such children.

Defiant behavior is developmentally appropriate at three stages in a child’s life:
  1. age 2 - when the youngster is going from infancy to childhood
  2. puberty - when the young person is going from childhood to adulthood
  3. old age - when the individual is going from self-sufficient adulthood to needing supportive care

What is similar about these developmental stages is that each is a time of intense transition when the person feels "out of control" regarding his or her circumstances. Some people get stuck in a defiant stage. This type of behavior is especially strong when teenagers feel that they have no control over a life situation (e.g., divorce, separation, moving, death, change in school, etc.). The reaction is to fight for control.

Parents need to recognize that any child can exhibit defiant behavior without having enough symptoms to qualify him or her for a specific diagnosis of Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). Although children who are defiant appear to know the difference between right and wrong, they are confused and frustrated by the fact that the rules keep changing from one adult to the next. They want to see the world in black and white terms, because transitions are disturbing to them. As a result, they constantly test the limits. Telling such a child what to do is synonymous with drawing a line in the sand. When limits are set or directives are given, oppositional defiant children feel as if someone is controlling them, and they retaliate.

Generally, these children do not have problems with their friends unless they are in a position of authority (e.g., captain of a sports team, head of a safety patrol). In fact, the child who is defiant can be viewed as a leader by his or her peer group and, especially at the junior- or senior-high school level, can be seen as a champion for all kids' rights. Young people who are feeling the need to assert their independence can view the defiant peer as a hero. For the most part, the oppositional child’s "enemies" are parents and teachers.

An oppositional defiant child or teen has great difficulty being told what to do (e.g., “clean your room” … “feed the dog” … “get off the phone” …etc.). Defiant kids function much better under systems in which they are given the opportunity to “self-motivate,” because it gives them a feeling of being in control. Mrs. Howard, a middle school teacher, implemented some of the suggestions made for dealing with students who are defiant. Her challenge was a young boy who refused to comply with whatever she told him to do. When the problems approached a boiling point, she had tried moving his desk closer to her, and his behavior got even worse. She had escalated disciplinary consequences, and he said he didn’t care. She eventually decided to move his seat away from her, and she started making a conscious effort to “ask” him what he needed to be doing, rather than “telling” him. She related the following story:

One day I asked him in the morning what he needed to do before he could have recess. He said, "Clean my desk." I nodded and went about teaching the morning activities. About an hour later he came up to me and said, "I’m almost done." "Almost done with what?" I asked. "Cleaning my desk," he replied.

The teacher went on to say that she was totally shocked. She had forgotten all about the desk cleaning, but he hadn’t. Until that point, she had argued with him about desk cleaning – he hadn’t done a thing she told him to do all year. Just changing her approach from "demanding" to "asking" made all the difference. "I wish I’d known this back in September," Mrs. Howard stated. "He’s like a changed person as long as I remember to ask rather than tell."

Parenting Children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder

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