Is This Normal?
All preschoolers throw fits sometimes. All preteens gripe and sulk over rules they don't like. All teenagers butt heads with their parents once in awhile. To some extent, defiance is a normal part of development, a sign that a child is testing the rules and learning the limits.
That being said, there are definitely some behaviors that need more urgent attention, either because they're a symptom that your child could have ODD or another condition, or because the defiance is interfering with your family's functioning. As you consider your child's behaviors, bear in mind that each of the behaviors described below take place over an extended time period.
Normal defiant behavior in preschool-aged children includes throwing fits or tantrums. As children learn how small they are and how important they are to you, they look for ways to gain some control over their lives, and fits are one way they can dig in their heels and try to exert control over a situation.
However, just because tantrums are a normal part of development doesn't mean that you should cave every time your child throws one, or that you should have to live with constant embarrassment from public tantrums. Looking the other way because tantrums are normal is akin to the parents of a bully throwing up their hands and saying, “Well, what can we do? Boys will be boys.”
On the other hand, if you've tried taking away just about every privilege in the book with no result, you're probably in need of some alternative solutions. If it seems like every unexpected circumstance in your child's life leads to a no-holds-barred, sound-barrier-breaking tantrum, and it's been going on for several weeks or months, the behavior is not normal. That doesn't necessarily mean that your child has ODD, but it does mean you need to take immediate action for your child's well-being as well as your own.
If you need a little comic relief from parenting a toddler or preschooler, Christie Mellor's The Three-Martini Playdate is a tongue-in-cheek guide for infusing retro values into family life. Much of the book is silly, but in all seriousness, Mellor (herself the parent of two “darling little angels”) urges parents to be firm about their own rights in the family.
Whining, griping, sulking, and occasional rule-breaking are all normal behaviors in the school-age child. Hurting other people or animals, destroying property, or creating such an environment of hostility and negativity over a period of weeks or months that other family members dread the child's presence, is not. Neither is consistent defiance to comply with requests and rules.
Even if the defiance is seemingly passive, it's still defiance (remember the example of the little girl who had selective hearing). In other words, “sins of omission” and seeming forgetfulness (if you have ruled out learning disabilities or are pretty sure the forgetfulness is selective) are probably causing you extreme annoyance and lots of stress in your family. These behaviors over a period of weeks or months warrant intervention.
So if every teen is defiant, and the nature of adolescence is to pull away from the family unit and establish independence, isn't all defiant behavior normal in teens? No. Like school-age children, teens need help if they defy authority and disregard rules and social norms consistently (passively or actively), hurt others, harm animals, damage property, start fires, engage in dangerous activities, or cause others around them to cower in their presence.
A teen who defies one big rule is exhibiting normal behavior, but a pattern of defiance over time is not normal. Just because a teen is as big as you are — or bigger — doesn't mean his brain has finished developing. Not until adulthood does the human brain complete crucial developments, and teens whose parents stand by the wayside will ultimately suffer.
On some level, teens know this, and are waiting for you to step in and assure their safety by establishing healthy limits. Alas, a healthy balance isn't static: it's the gentle push and pull, the creative solutions to conflicts, and the less-than-perfect compromises that are intrinsic to a healthy parent-teen relationship.