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Upset lady responding to a defiant child

Defiance: Three Steps for Responding without Losing Your Cool

“You can’t make me! I’m not doing it!” This phrase, coupled with an insolent glare, can leave even the most experienced parent grappling with a wide range of feelings. Surprise, anger, frustration, sadness, insecurity, and other uncomfortable emotions can make it extremely difficult to deal with this challenging behavior.

You are not alone!

Analyzing the most common internet search terms related to parenting, we almost always see “defiance” and “disrespect” competing for the top spot. Edging up against these are terms like “passive defiance” and “passive aggression.” Some kids yell and argue as they refuse to comply. Others simply clamp on the brakes and silently defy. Either way, this pattern of behavior must be dealt with… and dealt with well.

Powerful and loving is the Love and Logic way—this is what it means to “deal with it well.”

Great leaders, great parents, great teachers, great coaches… great people in general… demonstrate genuine compassion while providing the limits and accountability that help us learn from our mistakes and become caring and responsible neighbors. Powerful and loving adults help youth learn from unhealthy patterns of behavior when the “price tag” of consequences is still small. Regarding defiance and passive aggression, when is it best for young people to learn that these behaviors have very sad consequences? Here are three steps toward dealing with defiance as well as teaching youth at an early age the costs of consequences.

Step 1: Calmly say, “No problem. I love you too much to argue about this. If it doesn’t get done, I will take care of it.”

“He just crosses his arms and mumbles, ‘make me,’ when I ask him to do anything. I feel like screaming, and sometime I do. It drives me crazy!”

This mom was surprised, and a bit intrigued, when I asked, “What would happen if, in the short term, you let him think that he was getting away with acting that way?”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “He needs to know that he can’t treat me that way.”

“That’s right,” I agreed. “But what if you could buy yourself some time to calm down, knowing this would allow you to prove to him that you are the most powerful and loving woman in his life?”

The purpose of this first step is to avoid an angry confrontation and to give the parent plenty of time to think, plan, and get the help they need from others.

Step 2: Be quiet.

“This second step is the hardest part for most of us,” I explained. “Isn’t it hard to avoid reminders, lectures, or threats?”

She agreed, “I feel so powerless. Nothing I do or say makes him comply.”

Out of our feelings of powerlessness come plenty of temptations to talk our kids into compliance. This talk-based approach just creates more conflict and provides the youth with more unhealthy power.

“But how do I get the job done?” she asked.

“Do it for him,” I replied. “Or have someone else complete it, then say to yourself, ‘It’s okay for my son to think that he has gotten away with something… because soon he will realize that he hasn’t.’”

Step 3: Let sincere empathy and consequences do the teaching.

“Mom! It’s time for you to take me to practice! What’s taking you so long?”

With sincerity she replied, “Oh… this is so unfortunate. I’ve spent all of my time and energy doing what you refused to do. Maybe next week I’ll be able to take you.”

Regardless of how angry and argumentative our kids become, is it essential that we set and enforce these types of boundaries? Is it essential that we remind ourselves that we can either pay now… or pay more later on? Is it critical that we also grasp the truth that responding with empathy and very few words is always more effective than trying to argue sense into an angry child?

I see that you are really upset right now. I love you too much to argue.
I’ll listen when your voice is calm like mine.

Is the type of loss experienced by this young person far less expensive than the types he will face later in life if his defiance and disrespect remain unchecked?

What’s a logical consequence for being defiant as an adult? Might it be job loss, economic loss, the loss of supportive relationships, the loss of others’ willingness to offer their help? Logical consequences for kids, such as loss of certain privileges, being expected to complete extra chores to earn privileges back, or even having to pay for the cost of someone doing the job they refused, are miniature versions of the consequences that they will face later in life as adults.

There are two consequences, however, that people using Love and Logic should NEVER apply. Our kids should never lose their right to dignity, and they should never lose our unconditional love.

Thanks for reading!

Dr. Charles Fay