By Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW
There is something about your child looking you straight in the eye and saying, “No, I won’t do that,” “I hate you” or “You can’t make me” that challenges you to the core.
You are so not alone.
However, you can handle this annoying behavior better when your goal is to utilize your relationship with a child as motivation, rather than ineffective consequences and punishment. Here are seven strategies to help you stay composed when you are faced with defiant behavior from your kids.
1. Don’t ever take it personally.
Your child is not refusing to eat breakfast to intentionally frustrate you. She is not saying “No way” about getting in the car to annoy. Rigid, defiant and “off track” behavior is a signal that your child is feeling disconnected. Children who behave “badly” are not doing it to “get” attention. They’re doing it because they needattention and connection from you. Getting angry and controlling in this instance is about the worst thing you can do.
2. Consider why they refuse.
Imagine a day when you get up, and before you can even take a breath someone is telling you what to do. You’re told what to wear, what to eat, when to leave the house, and on and on. I am not suggesting that we allow children to run the show. But trying on their perspective of close-to-zero autonomy can help you empathize with their desire for power, even if it’s the power to defy.
3. Talk to yourself.
There is no better tool for staying calm than the use of positive self-talk. In order to pull off “Don’t take it personally,” you will need to speak to yourself inwardly about what is happening in front of you. That means when your child says, “I don’t waaant to get dressed,” and your first thought is, “I DON’T CARE! GET DRESSED NOW!” you can keep from saying that out loud, and instead use some helpful self-talk: “Deep breath. Joey is refusing to get dressed and I want to yell, but I can stay calm.” Once you talk yourself out of behavior you don’t want to engage in, you can talk yourself into responding more effectively.
4. Reflect and honor a child’s feelings and meet them where they are.
Allow a child her feelings of rebellion and engage in a warm way. (Yes, this is actually possible after that kind chat you had with yourself.) Try narrating, “You really don’t want to get out of the car. I see your arms holding onto those car seat straps and you’re probably thinking, ‘No, no, no, I’m not getting out of the car!’” What good does this do? It creates a pause, a gap in the anger spiral you might both whirl into. When you state “what is” in a calm manner, your child feels recognized. And because you didn’t engage in any type of power struggle, there is no authority or control to react to, or push up against.
5. Hold boundaries on unsafe behavior only.
Here’s what I mean by this: When your child loses it and their nervous system is overloaded — there is no teachable moment. If they are freaking out about something, keep everyone safe and leave it at that until the storm has passed. Stop aggression with firm arms and say, “I can’t let you hit.” When they retaliate and yell, “I hate you — you’re the worst mom in the whole world,” do not try to now also put boundaries on their words. They have moved from a completely inappropriate way of expressing their stress and displeasure (hitting) to a more, albeit only slightly more, appropriate way (yelling mean things at you). Take the high road. Because you have a fully formed prefrontal cortex, you can.
6. Keep a positive view of your child.
Know that raising respectful, kind, productive members of society is a marathon and not a sprint. This is another time for self-talk: “My child is young and still learning. His brain is not done developing and he needs my gentle guidance.” Trust him to turn things around. Just because your child is refusing to leave the house at 3:30, doesn’t mean he’ll still be refusing at 3:40. Hold the vision that he will eventually comply with your request.
7. Use some humor and power play.
Humor, when used wisely, is a very valuable tool. Avoid sarcasm and teasing and aim for a silly, conspiratorial tone. If your child resists teeth-brushing, you could say: “Hmm, mouth seems to be closed, guess I’ll need to brush your nose and ears instead.” Watch them laugh as you do, and after enough giggles they’ll likely comply. Power play is when you play games that give a child the more powerful role. “Push Dad Over” is a favorite in our house, as is “Invited Defiance,” where I build a block tower and beg that it not be knocked down, only to move through the build-beg-knock down process over and over.
I know it’s hard — really, really hard — to keep yourself regulated, calm and in a state of mind from which you can respond (instead of react) when things are fast spinning out of control. Remember that your children are learning how to handle themselves by watching you. These tips will help you keep your cool when tempers run hot and you’ll see real results — improvement in your relationship with your kids, and in their behavior.