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Treating Symptoms AND Causes of Defiance

Dr. Charles Fay

Fourteen-year-old Curtis walks in from school, throws his coat on the floor and immediately begins the fine art of verbal brain drain: “Mom! I’m starvin’! What’s for dinner?”

Mother greets him with a smile and says, “Honey, we’re having leftovers from last night—meatloaf.  How was school?”

Faster than the speed of light, Curtis’ eyes roll back in his head, his jaw drops, and he whines, “Aw, Mom! I don’t waaaant thaaaaat.  Let’s get pizza.  I hate meatloaf!”

Full battle shields deployed, and her once sweet smile fading, Mom enters the fray.  “No! We are not going out tonight.  What do you think?  Do you think money grows on trees?”

By the time they both sit down for dinner, Mom is exhausted, Curtis has experienced an entertaining show of parental frustration and anger, and another chunk of their relationship has been damaged.

What’s the good news here?  For over 40 years, Love and Logic has helped thousands of parents put the fun back into raising kids.

Why have the techniques had such lasting and widespread success?  Largely because Love and Logic addresses both symptoms (misbehavior) and underlying causes (kids’ needs for love, healthy control, significance and self-worth).

Symptoms?  Causes?  What does all of this really mean? Let’s imagine that the mother above has two trusted friends who fancy themselves as rather accomplished amateur child therapists.

She consults with friend number one, who responds, “Make his arguing backfire for him.  Until he stops this habit, try going on strike.  Each time he asks you for something, say, ‘I’ll be happy to do these things for you when I feel treated with respect.’“

Not bad for an amateur!  On her way home, she stops by the store and runs into friend number two.

Mom throws the question his way.  What’s his answer?

“You need to find out why he’s arguing so much in the first place.  Does he feel connected to you in a loving way?  Is he crying out for attention, some control or some loving limits?  Is he feeling really poorly about himself?”

Not bad for an amateur!  There’s only one problem.  Now Mom is really confused.  What does she do?  Does she just deliver a consequence?  Or does she find and treat the causes of Curtis’ arguing escapades?  Which friend is correct?

Both and neither!  Using a good, logical consequence, alone, often stops the misbehavior.  What’s the problem then?  If the child’s underlying needs are not met, the misbehavior tends to resurface later—either in its original form or some other.  Arguing may return as arguing—or as a quiet refusal to do what the parent asks.

Treating causes, alone, also falls short of the mark.  While the child may start to feel much better because his or her emotional needs are being met, the misbehavior continues because it’s become such a habit.

 Powerful and lasting solutions address both symptoms and underlying needs.

What would happen if we had a machine that could combine two human beings?  What would happen if we combined the two amateur therapist friends above?  Who would we have?

Simply stated, we’d have a master of Love and Logic!  Now, let’s imagine that Mom took this person’s advice.  Mom’s plan would likely have two parts.

Mom’s Plan Part One: Treat the Symptom

She’d begin by whispering in a sad tone of voice, “This is so sad.  I’ll be happy to listen when your voice sounds like mine.  And, by the way, I do things for people who treat me with respect.”

Most kids learn quickly that arguing gets them nothing while being respectful gets them a lot.

Mom’s Plan Part Two: Treat the Underlying Causes

Love and Logic parents simply meet universal human needs.  These needs, the underlying causes of mostbehaviors, include:

  • The need for unconditional love, respect and comforting limits. 

Love and Logic parents meet this need by wrapping consequences in a strong blanket of empathy:  “This is so sad. I know you must be really mad.  And, I’ll be happy to take you out for pizza when I know we won’t have an argument.” The underlying message is, “I will always value and love you, even when I don’t like your behavior.”

  • The need for healthy control.

When children are angry, defiant or resentful, they are actually hurting.  Giving them plenty of healthy choices is medicine for their wounds.

The mother above would give Curtis lots of choices like, “Do you want to have juice or milk with dinner?”  “Are you going to set your alarm for 6:00 or 6:15?”  “Would you like to have your hair long or short?”

  • The need to be noticed and to feel good about oneself.

During tough times, kids need more than ever for us to see their strengths and point these out.  Sadly, we often forget to do this when we are caught up in the problem.

Our Love and Logic mom would greet her son each morning and evening with a high-five, a hug and a smile.  She also takes time out to notice positives.

If we were a fly on the wall, we’d see and hear her saying things like, “Curtis, I noticed your friends really look up to you.”  “Curtis, I noticed you really take pride in your skateboarding.”  “Curtis, I noticed you like to draw.”

It’s amazing what we will do to please the people who notice our strengths!

“What do you do when they say, ‘I’m not doing that! You can’t make me!’?”

Step 1: Say in a non-threatening way, “No problem. I care about you too much to fight with you about this. If it doesn’t get done I’ll take care of it.”

Whom are you really talking to? You’re talking to yourself. The goal at this point is to allow the child or teen to believe that you are backing down so that you can create a solid plan for making their bad behavior their problem.

Does this decrease the odds of having a destructive, even dangerous power struggle?

Step 2: Hope and pray they continue their defiance.

Really. Don’t remind, nag, beg, bribe, or threaten. The fewer words you use, the better. Remember that every mistake or misbehavior is a wonderful opportunity to learn life’s most valuable lessons.

Step 3: Put together a plan and plug the holes.

Do you know a child or teen so bright that they quickly find the “loopholes” in every plan? Avoid this by first visiting with family, friends, colleagues, or other professionals who can offer ideas and support.

Step 4: Let loving empathy and logical consequences do the teaching.

There must be consequences, because defiance is damaging to everyone. It drains our energy, and it hurts the young person by leading them to believe that nasty, disrespectful behavior is okay. Kids will never enjoy peaceful and productive lives if they fail to develop proper submission and respect for authority.

Sincere empathy delivered by the adult makes if far more likely that the defiant child will learn respect rather than resentment and greater rebelliousness.

Step 5: Remember to love the child even when it’s impossible to love their behavior.

This is tough… but that’s why it’s so powerful. Move on as soon as possible and hold no grudges. Hope is provided when kids know that nothing can separate them from our love.

For more, check out& Love and Logic in Tough Situations