There are also some cognitive reasons for defiant behavior. Some of these may be intertwined with medical reasons and even mental and emotional reasons. It's important to be honest with yourself and your partner about the full picture of your child's life, including cognitive delays or slow skill development and their impact on behavior.
Low IQ and Cognitive Delays
During the past twenty years or so, IQ has been dismissed in many circles as an inadequate measure of intelligence. “What is intelligence?” “How do we measure it?” and “What does a high score even mean?” are valid questions that force society to rethink how it labels and values others and how schools are structured.
These questions notwithstanding, for better or for worse, children who score low on IQ tests tend to do poorly in school compared to children who score high on IQ tests. It does not mean these children are stupid. It does mean that their grades are poorer. It can mean that they feel stupid because they relate poor grades to stupidity, or because people tell them or imply that they're stupid. In and of itself, feeling stupid and undervalued in a place she spends most of her waking hours being judged and graded is enough to make a child frustrated and grumpy.
If your child has a cognitive delay or mental handicap, this argument is even more powerful. What happens to a kid who spends a lot of time in separate classrooms or getting different components in her education, particularly if the classes are called “remedial,” “special,” or another new, more euphemistic term? You hope that the classes serve to close the learning gap and give her the skills she needs to ensure her future success. Be that as it may, her education is still obviously different, and being a kid, she may not be totally comfortable with being different, since different isn't cool until she's in her late teens and practically done growing up.
Children who are deaf from birth or a young age cannot get full language input from reading lips or reading written English. In order to live a full life — with a stimulating education, enjoyment of the arts, and a thriving social life — deaf children need immersion in American Sign Language (ASL). Usually, this is at a school for the deaf.
Children with cognitive delays, especially those with language difficulties, may find it harder to express their feelings. It's hard enough for an adult to articulate existential angst, so imagine how hard it must be for a young child with a cognitive or language impairment. Frustration, anxiety, depression, or pent-up anger doesn't have much chance of being expressed in a healthy, healing way unless the child is given the tools to do so. A therapist can help.
Poor Social Skills
Some children with defiant behavior patterns lack social skills to help them succeed in school and extra-curricular activities. There are some kids who are born with the kind of charisma that draws people to them, and there are some who aren't. That doesn't mean that they're doomed to be outcasts, though, because social skills can be taught. Teaching kids appropriate social behavior and manners will help smooth the rough edges at home and in school, and once your child gets a taste of the payoff — a nice social life — she'll probably stick with it. A good axiom to keep in mind is: “In order to have friends, you have to be a friend.” Ask your child if she would like to have more friends, and if you sense that she does, tell her that you can teach her some ways to make friends.
Here are some skills to work on with your child to build friendships and social alliances when she's ready:
Asking before taking things from other people. To teach this, model the appropriate behavior and explain it to your child as you do so.
Playing games for fun and spirit, not winning and losing. To teach this, play a board game as a family and focus on fun and interaction, not winning and losing.
Making others feel welcome and valued. To teach this, invite another family for dinner. Explain to your child ahead of time how you, the adult, will treat your guests so they're comfortable — taking coats, offering food and drink, sharing the best seat on the couch — and ask if your child has ideas about how to help the younger guests feel comfortable. Carry out the visit with a lot of wink-winking between you and your child as you each perform the tasks you outlined ahead of time, and recap the evening later to talk about what went well and how the guests reacted.
Being flexible in a group. To teach this, model the behavior by pointing it out to your child when you do so. Explain the difference between being flexible (going to a restaurant you don't like because you were outvoted) and putting yourself in danger (eating peanut butter sandwiches when you're allergic to peanut butter).
Helping others in need. To teach this, model the behavior and explain it to your child. There is no need to work in a soup kitchen if you don't have time, but simple acts, like picking up newspapers piling up at the neighbors' house when they're out of town, take little effort.
You'll need to do a lot of narration with your child as you teach these skills to explain the reasons behind your behavior: “I really wanted to go to out for pizza after the game, but everybody else wanted hamburgers. So I said, okay, you know what? Hamburgers are fine this time — I can eat pizza some other time. It worked out well because I got to hang out with my friends, and while I was there, they invited me to go to another game next week. If I hadn't gone out for hamburgers, I would have missed out on that invitation.”
Sometimes kids act defiantly because they're easily frustrated and have a hard time explaining their feelings. One of the most helpful tools you can give your child is the word “frustrated.” Sometimes the word “frustrated” doesn't come up in the basic naming of feelings like sad, mad, happy, tired, surprised, and hungry. Frustration is more complex, but kids definitely feel it.
If you see your child building up to a full-scale meltdown because she really wants to write her name but hasn't built the necessary skills to succeed (holding a pencil correctly, practicing the letters first), you can gently say, “It looks like you're feeling frustrated because you want to write your name but it's not working out like you wanted.” If your child says yes or nods, you're on the right path. Naming the feeling is very important. Take it slow, empathize with the feeling — “Yes, that does sound frustrating” — and ask her if she would like to take a break or have you teach her the simple parts of writing her name that she needs to practice. Empathy and communication skills are covered in more depth in Chapter 8.