Address A Child’s Defiance Without Crushing Their Spirit

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Kids that defy adult instructions, even instructions that are ultimately for their benefit, often get begged or threatened into compliance.  Pleading with your child to pick up their mess, or threatening your child that those toys on the floor will be given to a charity shop isn’t always going to work.

Why? Probably because your child is waiting you out.  Children are wise observers of what works and what doesn’t, so they know you will eventually clean things up and they are fully aware that toys never disappear after a threat.

If you are tired of pleading and threatening, I have a strategy that could make you less aggravated and even ultimately boost your child’s self-esteem.  It works best with children that have at least a 30-month cognitive and language level.  This means that if you have an older developmentally delayed child that is unable to comprehend a request with a reward attached (“If you give me the shoe, I will get your milk”) then you should try a less complex strategy until they can understand this concept.

The idea is simple:  you make a request and if no response is elicited, you explain that they have a choice.  Not complying will result in a consequence they can see.  After the consequence is imposed, you offer the child another chance to make things right by following a slightly different direction or offering a “re-do”.  There is no “1-2-3” counting, because if you are certain that your child has understood your initial request and the explanation of the consequence, those were already the “one” and the two” of the countdown.  Your execution of the consequence is the “three”.  Good enough for me!

The trickiest parts of this strategy are the maintenance of a warm tone while your beloved child is defying you, and your quick thinking to identify a later task that allows them to save face while complying with your second request.  Do not think I haven’t had to act warm and friendly when inviting a difficult child to give participation another try.  I remind myself that I am the adult in the situation, and my job is to model calmness and teach skills, not get the upper hand on a 4 year-old.

I have also made up some pointless tasks such as rearranging boxes on a shelf, just to have an easy and successful task to offer them after the first consequence is delivered.  The younger the child, the less they will realize that Job #2 was only a chance for them to know that I am not rejecting them in any way.   I could say it, but actions speak louder than words.

Here is what this strategy looks like with a young child:

Adult:  “Please pick up all the cars, and then we can go have our yummy lunch.”

Child:   Looks at you, shakes her head and runs to the fridge. 

Adult:  ” Here is your choice:  pick up your cars and put them in the bin, or they will sit in their bin on top of the fridge until after dinner.”  Adult points to the fridge and/or taps the top to clarify what that means.

Child:   Gets a spoon from a drawer and stands by the fridge, no acknowledgment of your  directions.

Adult:  Uses The Happiest Toddler Kind Ignoring strategy and turns away from the child and waits next to the car pile for about 15 seconds for a positive response.  If the child doesn’t return, the adult puts the cars into the bin without more discussion, and places the bin on top of the fridge.

Child:  Cries, recognizing that a consequence has been delivered.

Adult:  Uses a disappointed but calm tone :  “I am sad too, because now we have to wait to play cars.” Adult’s body language and tone brightens. “Would you like to try listening again?  Please give me the blocks and I will stack them.”  Adult begins to stack very slowly to allow the child to consider her choice, and warmly welcomes the child’s help.

Child:   Begins to hand blocks to the adult.

Adult:  “You did a great job helping me!  Thank you!  Let’s go have our lunch!”

This can go south with strong-willed children, tired children and even some hungry children. I don’t recommend letting kids get super-tired or starving and then setting them up to lose.   Some kids are feeling great, but they draw a line in the sand and decide that they aren’t budging.  They won’t back down.  I express my disappointment in the outcome (no car play) but not in the child.  I don’t tell them I am disappointed in their behavior, because for a young child, they may not always be able to distinguish themselves from their behavior.  They will always be able to see the result: no cars.

I keep calm and impose consequences unless things go from defiance to aggression.  Then I consider a time-out strategy.  Aggression should never be ignored, because that is as good as approving of aggression.  In this age of zero-tolerance in schools, no one is doing any favors to a child by inadvertently teaching them that aggressive behavior is inconsequential.  They will find out soon enough that other people feel very differently about it.

Young kids will defy you.  I guarantee it.  Responding to defiance with limit setting doesn’t have to damage them or your connection with them.   Addressing defiance in this way can build a more positive relationship while making it very clear that there are consequences to not listening to you.

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