It is important to get the right diagnosis for your child, if he or she needs one. Not all children who show signs of noncompliance or defiance have oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), but some of them may have. Noncompliance, defiance and aggression might indicate other diagnoses as well, such as Asperger’s Syndrome, ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder or OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).
Proper Diagnosis of Oppositional Defiant Disorder is Key
Proper diagnosis considers the age of onset, the intensity and severity of conduct problems, the purpose of such problems, and the conditions that elicit them. A professional sets up a diagnosis. This step is not replaceable. The correct diagnosis is not only important because you will know what the exact problem is, but it also determines the guidelines of possible interventions. It is important to know when you should seek the help of a professional. The following list helps you to see the critical points.
- The problems exist and persist longer than six months.
- Outbursts are unpredictable.
- Small and meaningless things can lead to an outburst.
- The child attempts to harm self, others or pets, or talks about harming.
- The child damages property.
- The child is unusually active, impulsive and has trouble to focus his attention.
- Daycare and preschool repeatedly voice concerns about the child’s behavior.
- You are running out of ideas having tried a variety of methods without success. (Hall & Hall, 2007)
Dealing With the Stress & Blame
Moreover, parents of defiant children have to deal with one specific risk factor, namely parental stress. Without being able to cope with their own stress, they are unable to help their children. Well-known risk factors that can lead to disobedience and defiance in children include marital stress, depression, alcohol and drug abuse, isolation and the lack of a protective social network. Other category of risk factors also has a negative influence on parenting, such as single parenting, low paying jobs, and stressful children. These factors are not easy to overcome. Single parents can find a support group or use the help of the extended family. (Hall& Hall, 2007)
It is important to note that the behavior of the children is the responsibility of the parents, at least to a certain degree. It would be a faulty perspective to resolve parents from all the blame just because the child is like that. Defiance usually does not start immediately, but a chain of events leads to it. Parents can feel that the situation got out of their hands, but the problems are apparent before that point. If you let them escalate and do not find adequate measures to deal with smaller problems, they will become big ones, which you might unable to handle alone.
The first step for parents is to stop blaming yourself. It is not easy, because parents of defiant children often believe that the child behaves that terribly because of them. Others do not help the situation either and tend to blame the parent for the behavior of the child. Blame does not help. It drives parents into isolation and makes it hard to ask for help. Help is rather needed, because parents regularly feel that they cannot handle the situation alone. (Hall & Hall, 2007) Not blaming yourself does not mean not taking responsibility!
Defiance does not develop all of a sudden. It is often attention seeking. Children do not necessarily get the desired amount of attention from their busy parents with positive behaviors; therefore, they resort to negative behaviors. Parental attention is reinforcement in that case and encourages the child to act in similar ways in the future. The other way to develop defiance in children is doing the chores you assigned to them, but only after a stressful and heated argument. (Barkley & Robin, 2008)
Dealing With Defiance Outside of the Home
Defiance and non-obedience can also represent a significant problem in the context of school, not just in the family. The website Intervention Central collected a series of useful strategies to deal with non-compliant behavior in the school setting. Although our focus is on the defiant behavior of the preadolescence in the family setting, it could be useful to take a quick look at these data as well.
First, defiance often does not restrict to one setting, and a non-compliant child can represent a problem at home and also in the school.
Second, the tips and techniques that might work in school may need to be adapted to the rules of the home environment with some modifications. In other words, you may have to change strategies at home and at school. (Gartright & Tyler, n.d.)
The most important suggestions to deal with non-compliant and defiant behavior in tweens are the following:
- Children need positive reactions from adults. Simple actions, like greeting the child or asking “How are you doing?” can work wonders.
- Monitor activities and redirect students with mild misbehaviors.
- Adults should avoid behaviors that upset or set off children. Avoid provocation.
- When dealing with the problem behavior of the child, convey that you do not tolerate this kind of behavior, but you still accept and love the child.
- The ultimate goal of any disciplinary measure is to teach behavioral patterns that are positive.
- A classroom emergency plan can be developed and implemented in the case of one or more students display aggression or threaten others. This might make no sense in a family setting at the first glance, but think about conflicts between siblings.
- A general rule is to remain calm and act with consistency.
Additional Techniques and Advice – Safe Zone
Managing non-compliant behavior has other techniques as well. The child can be allowed a corner or room where he or she can take a break when upset or angry. After calming down, we can talk with the child about such behavior, but no sooner.
Additional Techniques and Advice – Open Dialog
Asking open-ended questions help the adult to gather valuable information about the feelings and pains of the child. It helps to understand the problem further and the child can also feel that his or her voice is heard. It is quite pointless to engage in endless arguments with the child. Do not get hooked into a discussion. Use strategies of disengagement and do not make things worse by arguing, e.g. impose a predetermined consequence, move away from the child or repeat your request in an emotionally neutral tone. Formulate your request in positive terms. It would certainly help the child to calm down and feel your backing. Give positive attention in the times of need. Listen actively to not miss an important point. You can use ‘soft’ reprimands. A quick word or a stern look might be enough to stop the process from escalating. The use of nonverbal cues is very important. If the child sees that your head is blowing off, it is unlikely that he will stop. If you are able to defuse and reduce tension, it will have a calming effect on the kid as well.
Additional Techniques and Advice – Take a Break
Hall and Hall (2007) consider taking an occasional break as a crucial factor when you are raising defiant children. It is important to ensure that the behavior of the child is the only problem. Behavioral problems can be addressed effectively through treatment. Disorganization at home is an opportunity for a defiant child to create chaos and confusion. Structure and high levels of functioning at home help defiant children understand the need of rules and organization. The need of a structure also applies to play. Defiant children often have trouble to behave acceptably in unstructured play situations, either alone or with peers. They often have difficulties from getting to one activity to another. Parents can help the smooth transition from one activity to another, but defiant children do not like verbal directives. Nonverbal signals work better, particularly if the child has the feeling of control about the situation.
Some practical advice for parents of defiant children.
Defiant children have difficulty in just slowing down. They wind themselves up, but do not know how to release steam in an appropriate way. When they reach the point of emotional exhaustion, they have a temper tantrum or an outburst. A few quiet times throughout the day help them to monitor and control themselves better.
Defiant children frequently show aggressive behaviors, but if parents strive to reduce their exposure to violence and aggression, their behavior will improve.
Valuing [the children] and affirmation are two effective weapons against defiance and noncompliance. Hall and Hall (2007) believe that a close and warm parent-child relationship is important in addressing defiance. It starts with attachment, but some children are born with a difficult temperament and are irritable and hard to console.
Children with difficult temperament often fail to give positive reactions to the acts of parents to nurture and comfort them, so parents give up on trying. This seems to be a mistake. Defiant children need a lot more valuing than reprimanding. It helps to strengthen the relationship between the child and the parent. Even a defiant child can learn how to participate in a caring and nurturing relationship, but that requires the acquisition of specific skills. For example, allowing an adult to label their behavior, accepting and appreciating praise, allowing adults to participate in tasks, taking turns, and acknowledging that competitive games are about friendship and not winning or losing.
Hall and Hall (2007) are of the opinion that ignore and redirect is an effective method to use with defiant behavior instead of issuing ‘stop that’ commands. Ignoring isn’t not seeing what happens, but not reacting to it emotionally. The parent keeps his or her cool and redirects the child. Any small signs of disapproval will negatively influence redirecting.
Redirecting has various forms. For example, the child plays soccer inside the house. The parent can issue an Alpha Command, which is a directive incompatible with the inappropriate behavior. (“Bring my shoes and I will play with you outside”.) The child is not able to do both. Either he does what the parent requested or continues to do what he has already done. Alpha Commands cannot be harsh and demanding, because defiant children will ignore them. Alpha commands focus on one specific behavior. They are no questions, no judgments and not vague. It has the purpose to disrupt the disruptive behavior of the child.
Asking a gentle question is another way to redirect the child. (“Where is the best place to play soccer?”) The defiant child remains able to preserve his dignity and the parent can instantly approve the right decision.
The third option is offering a choice. (“Would you like to play soccer with me or with your friend?”) The child feels control about the situation and learns that his choices have consequences, either positive or negative. As Rousseau originally suggested, when children face the natural consequences of their choices and actions, it enables them to learn from them. It is not a struggle for power with the child. He or she can make the easiest and most natural choice, but the parent must engineer the environment so that it allows positive choices. Routines are also important tools to develop the independence of children.
Parents of defiant children often face what is called the Coercive Cycle (pdf). It begins with the parent making a request, the child refusing to comply and the parent withdrawing the request. This cycle must be broken, but a frontal assault from the parent would only lead to a power struggle with the child. Logical and natural consequences are no punishments from the parent. Punishing the child will usually make him more defiant. (Hall & Hall, 2007)
Barkley and Robin (2008) stress the importance of differentiating between personality and behavior when it comes to defiance. It is much easier to address the problem if you view the problem as what your child does instead of what he is. Defiance can take various forms. It can be verbal, aggressive, physical and passive noncompliance.
Barkley and Robin (2008) argue that defiance is a behavioral pattern and an attitude, shaped by several influences. It is not the very nature of the child. However, certain characteristics increase the likelihood of defiance, such as difficult temperament. Parental behavior can also contribute to the defiant behavior of children.
Barkley and Robin (2008) collected nine principles that help you to prevent or reverse defiance in your children.
- Focus on the positive
- Strive for good communication
- Use wisely negative and positive consequences
- Establish basic rules for living in your home and enforce these consistently
- Apart from the non-negotiable basic rules, involve your teen in negotiating every issue
- Maintain an adequate structure and supervision
- Facilitate appropriate ways of independence-seeking
- Have reasonable expectations and beliefs
- Respect the structure of your family
Defiance can make the life of a child, parent, family or a whole school class difficult. It is important to understand the underlying causes and know that as parents we are not alone in dealing with defiant behavior. The situation might seem to be very hard to handle, but deeper understanding and the application of certain techniques helps.