When I think about a defiant child, I am reminded of the Prodigal Son parable found in Luke 15. What an amazing example of a parent’s reaction of love, grace, and security and an incredible picture of our Heavenly Father’s continuous grace and mercy. The Prodigal Son was defiant – he used the resources his Father freely gave him and wasted them. He didn’t appreciate what his Father was doing for him. He didn’t understand his Father’s intentions. He failed to see what was wrong with his actions. He thought he was doing what was best for himself to survive and remain in control. When he came home, there were two different reactions – a bitter brother and a loving father. The bitter brother couldn’t see the pain his younger brother was walking in. He didn’t choose to be empathetic toward the lack of safety and love his brother had experienced. He kept his focus on what the brother had done wrong rather than meet his needs and celebrate what he was doing right. The other reaction is one we all should want to model – the loving, gracious Father. The Father chose to celebrate what his son was doing right, continue to speak love over his son, even after he had done wrong, and meet him with grace, truth and love.
Defiance is something every parent must deal with. Many times it seems as if every child is programmed to love saying the word “No” and to be selfish by nature. It is so important to realize that children from hard places often are defiant as a means of survival. Responding to a defiant child is an opportunity to create understanding, security, and trust for a child who has perhaps never known any of those things. It is so important to continue cultivating empathy and compassion for your child’s needs. Responses to defiance should be attachment-oriented and focus on making the child feel safe and secure. Leading with love and grace is not always easy and it takes energy as well as practice, but it is worth it in the end.
WHY CHILDREN ARE DEFIANT:
According to dictionary.com defiance is defined as “open resistance or blatant disobedience.” Defiance takes disobedience to a new level. It is when a child chooses to do the opposite of what you have told them without regard for you as their caretaker. It is frustrating and as a parent, it can cause anxiety, fear, anger, bitterness, and it can make it hard to continue pursuing attachment with your child. Although this is true, one of the most important things to recognize when your child is defiant is that it is not a personal attack on you. A question that is often on adoptive parents’ minds is whether or not their child’s defiance is adoption-related or not. When faced with this question, it is best to treat these issues in a way that assumes and cares for your child as if they are.
It is vital to understand and empathize with the fact that your child may be simply trying to survive. Acting out in a defiant manner may be the only way your child knows to get attention or feel in control in order to meet their needs. Many adopted children missed crucial bonding experiences as infants and young children that have left them with the inability to self-regulate, making a reaction of defiance almost inevitable when they are met with a challenge. Your child needs security and to feel as though they are safe. When your child is acting out in defiance, you must look beyond their behavior and see their need. They need your reassurance that they are safe and secure. They need to know that you want to meet their needs. They need to know that, even though you are asking them to let go of their control, they can trust you.
How to respond to defiance:
When responding to defiance, it is so important to do some self-exploration. We’ve all overreacted at some point, but it is vital to evaluate your own reaction to your child’s defiance. Does it have something to do with your own shame or need for control? Often when we repeatedly overreact to a child’s behavior, it has to with our own emotional “trigger” that comes from past experiences that make us have extreme reactions to our child’s behaviors. Invite the Lord into these areas of your heart –He will bring healing, hope, and peace to you. The more you allow the Lord into every part of you, the more you’ll be aware of what He is doing in your relationship with your child and the more you will be able to invite Him into difficult moments.
As a parent, it is so important to practice self-regulation. It can be so helpful to have various tactics to self-regulate when addressing your child’s behavior. Your child will be more inclined to respond positively if you are setting a tone of safety and love, rather than impatience and anger. When you feel yourself becoming over stimulated in your interactions with your child, it is a good idea to have calming tactics you can use in those moments, such as pausing to take a deep breath or stepping outside to get some fresh air. A few self-care ideas are to close your eyes and bring your focus to your breathe. After that, you can shift your breathing to a “tummy breath” where your stomach is expanding rather than your chest. It should help you calm frustration and/or anxiety in moments where you feel overwhelmed. You could even encourage your child to do it with you to help them self-regulate as well. Another idea is to choose a verse in the Bible that you connect with/speaks to your situation and make it a “breath prayer”. You can speak it out over yourself or what’s going on around you. For example, you could choose John 3:30 which says “He must increase and I must decrease” and when you need refreshment you could simply say “more of you Jesus”.
After difficult moments with your child, find a way to help yourself relax. Spending time in God’s word or in prayer is an excellent way to practise self-care. Another idea is if/when you have the capacity, go on a walk or run. It is so helpful to work off feelings of frustration, anxiety, anger, etc. by exerting some energy and releasing endorphins.
To prep for future difficult encounters with your child, it is vital that you take little moments for yourself. Take moments of extra self-care as you can even if you don’t feel as though you need it in that moment. It will help you have more patience and love for your child when the time comes where you do need that extra amount of energy.
Furthermore, it is so important to spend time cultivating empathy, compassion, grace and love for your child. Remember, you are not at battle with your child. Remember that your child NEEDS YOU to show them the love and grace of our Heavenly Father. This is such an amazing opportunity to stand in the gap for your child and display the Gospel on a level that is tangible for them. They need your love, your patience, and your kindness.
When responding to defiance, remember to address the behavior, not the child. Help your child to understand that, though they may mess up and disobey you, your love for them is not dependent upon their actions. Always speak life-giving words over your child. They remember what you say more than you may think they do. Make sure your responses are attachment-oriented and that they cultivate trust, security, and safety. Think of our Heavenly Father – He always leads His correction with gentleness and abounding love, but, nonetheless, with truth. Recognize your value as a parent.
According to Heather T. Forbes, LCSW, one of the best ways to connect with your child is to meet them where they are. She suggests that when children are acting out for attention, you must soothe their internal fear by responding with words that will create safety and security. As for our immediate response to defiance, Dr. Purvis suggests matching your response to your child’s level of misbehavior and immediate safety; use the least amount of firmness and correction necessary to resolve the situation. Give your child re-dos and ask them to try it again with respect. State your expectations and the consequences. When your child complies, be sure to praise them for doing the correct behavior; it will help them internalize it. If the child remains overstimulated and unable to self-regulate, lead them to a think-it over place and assure them you’ll be close. When they are ready, allow your child to have a redo after you have discussed the behavior briefly. Always praise the specific behavior of your child when they have made the right decision in a redo.
In Forbes’ book entitled Dare to Love, she makes note of how important it is to listen to your child. When your child is being defiant, they are more than likely in an emotional state of fear in which they have difficultly thinking logically or rationally. In this state, giving your child behavioral directives and expecting them to change what they’re doing is not realistic. Forbes suggests that it is necessary to first help your child get regulated to help them process their act of defiance. Later, when both of you are calm, you will be able to talk to the child and discuss ways to stay regulated next time instead of being disobedient. This will also allow you the opportunity to share your own frustration and sadness that developed from your child’s negative behavior. Through your unconditional love, acceptance, and understanding, you and your child have the opportunity to develop a deeper relationship of trust. Along with this, because of this emotional exchange, your child may be more prepared to stay regulated in the future. Forbes suggests that as these love-based interactions are repeated over and over, your child can develop a larger capacity for stress. They will be empowered to make their own decisions and choices based on their internal sense of right and wrong, not making choices based off of, “what will happen if I don’t get this need met?” or “what will happen if I get caught?”
Dealing with defiance can be exhausting, defeating, and simply just hard. But know that the energy you are sowing into your child is reaping a harvest of love, safety, and security in their heart (Galatians 6:9 – do not grow weary in doing good, for you will reap a harvest in time if you do not give up). You have been handpicked by our Heavenly Father to care for your child. Make the time to cultivate your relationship with Jesus. As you daily abide in Him, and He in you, you will bear fruit (John 15) and He will strengthen, refresh, and renew you day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16). Partner with Him in this process and include Him in this process. As 1 John 4:4 says, He who is in You is greater than he who is in the world and you CAN do all things through Christ who strengthens you (Philippians 4:13).
Developed by: Anna Bekah Hughes , Lifeline Intern
References: Purvis, K. B., Cross, D. R., & Sunshine, W. L. (2007). The connected child: Bring hope and healing to your adoptive family. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Forbes, H. T. (2009). Dare to love: The art of merging science and love into parenting children with difficult behaviors. Boulder, CO: Beyond Consequences Institute.