Dr Richard C. Woolfson
Some children are defiant by nature – it’s as though the first word they learnt to speak was “no”, and they have been saying “no” to their parents ever since! However, a child who is stubborn and confrontational one moment can often be charming, friendly and fun to be with the next.
The problem is, you can’t always tell when his defiance will show, so you find yourself walking on eggshells half the time, waiting in trepidation for the next unpredictable outburst. Or, in anticipation of his refusal to conform to your rules, you give in to him right at the start to avoid yet another parent-child battle.
One of the difficulties of raising Mr Defiant is that you can find yourself becoming overly negative towards him. His frequent challenges to your authority forces you to take a pessimistic outlook, so you start to adopt a parenting style based on reprimands and recriminations.
That’s why you need to makea special effort to recognise your defiant nine-year-old’s good behaviour when it occurs, and show your approval when he does what you ask.
Some psychologists suggest that as a general guide, parents should praise their child’s good behaviour at least four or five times more often than they criticise his negative conduct.
The timing of your reaction is very important. Rewards and punishments are more effective when dished out at the time the behaviour occurs. Waiting till the end of the day to praise something your child helpfully did before he left for school is far too late – the impact of your approval diminishes greatly with a long time gap. Likewise, it is pointless to reprimand him over the weekend for an act of defiance that took place during the week.
Now that your child is between seven and nine years, he is old enough to understand the social implications of his behaviour, even if he would rather see the world from his point of view only.
That’s why it helps to explain why you are troubled by his confrontations with you. Give him very clear and practical reasons to change his behaviour.
For instance, tell him his defiance upsets you, that his siblings are afraid of him when he loses his temper and refuses to cooperate with family rules, and that his friends wouldn’t invite him to their houses if he behaves like that. It’s also worth emphasising that his teachers will not value his defiant behaviour, and that he will have problems with his classmates if his behaviour persists – in other words, his popularity in school will diminish.
Try to express these comments positively, however. Remind him that you know he is a terrific child who doesn’t deliberately set out to upset others, and that you know he would rather not be anti-social. Add that you are telling him this in order to help him, not to bring him down. You’ll have much more impact if he thinks you are working with him, instead of against him.
Of course, you need to be flexible, and you should always consider the possibility that Mr Defiant may be justified at times in refusing to comply.
Assuming that your requests are typically reasonable, however, don’t get agitated in the face of his assertiveness. Instead, restate your position and set out the consequences if he challenges you, such as a cut in his TV time for the day. If he persists with his defiance, calmly follow through with the penalty. A consistent approach is essential.
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