Defiance in Action
Like many social and psychological problems, defiant behavior appears to have become more prevalent in recent years. Whether that increase is a result of more frequent labeling or an actual increase in defiant behavior, no one is exactly sure, but psychologists do have more information on defiance and have found more effective ways of correcting it.
This prevalence has influenced the psychological and legal communities to create their own definitions of defiance. Let's take a look at how they understand defiance, and what defiance looks like in different environments.
Psychologists consider defiant behavior to be a recurring pattern of defiant or oppositional behavior directed toward parents, teachers, or other authority figures. It is categorized as an “externalizing” issue, meaning it is concerned with the child's behavior toward others.
In other words, defiance is a problem because it affects the child's relationships with others, especially those in positions of authority. You see defiance when children interact with others, even when no words are exchanged. No wonder lay people often call defiance “acting out.”
You'll probably be relieved to know that some defiant behavior is normal. All children learn to flex their independence muscles by testing limits and while they're at it, their parents' threadbare nerves. Defiance is oppositional behavior. However, psychologists have identified an externalizing disorder called Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD), which needs more formalized treatment.
There are two types of externalizing disorders, Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) and Conduct Disorder (CD). Symptoms of CD are aggressive behaviors that violate others' basic rights and significantly impair the basic functioning of an environment like home, school, or extracurricular activities. Symptoms of CD include destruction of property, harming animals, and serious violations of age-appropriate rules.
Defiant Behavior at Home
You'll probably see defiance most often in your own home. When defiant behavior becomes constant and unavoidable, the home can become unpleasant for everyone who lives there. In fact, parents may frequently look for ways to escape, and find they enjoy their defiant child's company less and less.
A typical scenario: You've had a long day at work and come home not to rest and relax, but to prepare dinner at light speed, then monitor homework, and finally force your kids into bed before you spend your last free hour doing laundry and paying bills before falling into bed yourself. You ask your daughter in a pleasant voice, “Lauren, please set the table.”
But after a few minutes Lauren hasn't appeared. You poke your head around the door and see she's playing a video game with the sound turned down. She's not supposed to be playing video games before her homework is finished! You repeat, in a more urgent tone, “Please set the table.” There's no response until you walk over and turn off the monitor, and instead of cooperation you get a screaming tantrum that ends with kicking and “I hate you!” despite your admonitions and threats to take TV away for a week. Lauren has TV privileges revoked more often than not. All in all, it would have been easier to set the table yourself.
Does your child have a hearing problem?
If your child doesn't seem to hear your requests, it might be helpful to have her hearing checked at the pediatrician's. If your child is having a hard time hearing, it could give the appearance of oppositional behavior and lead to the frustration and depression that often influence it.
Defiant Behavior in Public
If you've experienced oppositional behavior at the grocery store, park, or worst of all, when you were a guest at someone else's house, you probably wanted to crawl under a rock in embarrassment as other people turned to stare and cluck their tongues (or maybe it just felt as if they were).
Having learned to push your buttons quite well at home, Lauren might up the ante by seeing what it takes to get you riled up in public. At a birthday party for a friend one Saturday, she gets up from the table with a forkful of cake and drippy ice cream. You start with an “I” statement and follow it with a request in a low voice: “Lauren, I'm worried that ice cream will drip on the floor and make a sticky mess. Please sit down at the table.” “No!” she shouts. (No hearing problems here). “I don't want to have to put you in time out at the party,” you explain. “Please sit down.” The cake falls on the floor and she doesn't even make eye contact with you. “We're going to have to leave the party,” you threaten, as she dashes outside to play on the slide, fork in hand, leaving you no choice but to follow and retrieve her.
Defiant Behavior at School
From the time your child starts kindergarten, she'll be at school for most of her waking hours for the rest of her childhood, leaving school authorities to deal with defiant behavior, for better or for worse. Though your daughter was once part of the advanced track, she was kicked out in eighth grade because of low grades. The low grades aren't because she's stupid — she has a bright mind and can get As when she wants — she just refuses to do her schoolwork.
A great book that covers passive defiance is If My Kid's So Nice … Why's He Driving ME Crazy? written by Dr. James Sutton and published by a small press called Friendly Oaks Publications. Though the book was written several years ago, it's a great tool for understanding kids who seem to be throwing away talent and potential.
Today, you're called out of an important meeting because your daughter has refused to go to class at all. According to the vice principal, she's sitting on the quad, doing nothing at all, thirty minutes after the bell. This laziness certainly wasn't learned in your home, where both parents work full-time jobs they qualified for with advanced degrees. When the vice principal gave her a detention, she replied with a string of curse words that have now earned her a one-day suspension.