Your toddler wants to play. You sit and offer the two choices he always wants. “Would you like the blocks or the puppets?” “No!” he responds “The puzzle!” (he hates the puzzle). You offer the puzzle. “No! The blocks!” It’s a scenario every parent knows, and the child doesn’t have to be a toddler. Small instances of pushback, attitude, and resistance, what psychologists call defiance or oppositionality, happen all throughout childhood. This kind of behavior spikes sharply during the toddler period and the teen years. So it is normal. But why is it normal? And when is it a problem?
To understand why this kind of behavior is normal and when it can become a problem, it is helpful to understand what I call the inverted U of defiance. It is illustrated in this graph.
The first thing to understand is that mild defiance, what is sometimes called “boundary testing,” helps kids learn and feel safe. It is a way for them to learn the rules, to discover family and social norms and unspoken assumptions – to engage in all that learning that doesn’t happen in a class or a book and which is very difficult to put into words or teach directly. Parents can feel that they are messing things up when a child is testing boundaries. The truth is quite the opposite. Mild boundary testing is evidence that your child feels secure enough to explore social norms, and trusts you enough to know that you will help her learn without blowing your top.
These behaviors spike during the toddler and teen years for a different reason: individuation. Kids are trying to become their own person. Toddlers and teens go through what appears from the outside to be a wildly irrational spate of pushing back and resistance to reasonable rules. But this is because their developmental task is to separate from the parent and make their own choices. As hard as it is for the parent, defiance at these times is often a sign of healthy development.
But occasionally kids will test boundaries incessantly. Boundary testing can become a problem when it happens so much that it interferes with learning norms, developing trust, and fostering a healthy sense of an independent self. The constant stress of the misbehavior leads parents and kids to become exhausted, demoralized, and angry. It can get in the way of learning social norms and rules because kids are on restriction so often that they miss out on opportunities to learn, engage in positive activities, or make independent choices. This is illustrated in the graph by the inverted U shape. As defiance increases, learning and feelings of safety initially increase. But they quickly reach a peak, and after that peak more defiance means less learning and less independence. Kids with this level of boundary testing are often seen as engaging in constant “power games” by the parent. Trust begins to erode. It can become toxic for the parent and kid if it goes on too long.
This kind of boundary testing can occur when kids feel insecure or stressed, and need more limits in order to feel safe. I have seen a spike in defiance following a move into a new home, a step-parent moving into the house, a parent going on military deployment, trouble in the parents’ relationship, or even subtle things that parents would never pinpoint, such as increased stress at the parent’s job. When this kind of defiance increases, the best thing to do is what I call the “hard candy” approach. Be very firm and consistent in your reactions to it, always giving a clear consequence tied directly to the behavior (the hard part), but do so with great warmth and understanding, and at every instance of positive behavior give loads of praise and positive feeling (the sweet candy). The combination of firm consistency and loving warmth is often enough to resolve the issue, but seeing a professional can help make the process easier and give you simple tools to help your child.
If you look closely at the graph you will notice that out at the far end of the x axis, where defiance is greatest, is “ODD” which stands for Oppositional Defiant Disorder. This is a condition in which normal childhood defiance becomes abnormal, and begins to interfere with the child’s normal social and psychological development. Children with ODD have a level of defiance that is severe enough that it can profoundly impact their self-esteem and learning, putting them a higher risk for more serious problems in adulthood. Children with ODD exhibit four of the following:
Often loses temper (throwing repeated and excessive temper tantrums)
Arguing with adults much more than is typical for the age
Actively refuses to follow reasonable requests and rules (“No!” is always the answer)
Tries to annoy or upset others, “pushes buttons” much more than normal teasing
Is easily annoyed by other people
Blames others for mistakes
Is spiteful and seeks revenge frequently
A cursory glance at these symptoms might shock a parent, because most kids have done one (or maybe even four!) of these at any given time. But the key thing that psychologists like me look for is this: are at least four of these things happening so often and with such intensity that they have impaired the child’s normal functioning for the last six months? Are they unable to go to school? Have a safe healthy relationship with a parent? Make friends? Participate in community activities? When defiance rises to the level of ODD, the normal behaviors of defiance become so exaggerated that the child is unable to grow and learn.
Parents of children with unhealthy boundary testing would likely benefit from brief therapy. But children with ODD should receive treatment from a specialist who focuses on child psychology. Treatment for ODD typically consists of investigating the unseen factors that reinforce the behavior and helping parents change the behavior by changing how behavior is reinforced. It is complex and difficult work, so seeing a psychologist is highly recommended.
While mild defiance is a normal healthy part of children’s development, parents can often misinterpret it and believe that something is going wrong. Understanding the reasons why children can be defiant (to learn norms, build trust, and become independent) can help parents to see it for what it is and not be too alarmed. When normal defiance becomes so frequent that it starts to interfere with normal learning it is important to keep rules and consequences consistent while giving plenty of positive attention to good behavior. Finally, when defiance becomes so severe that it impairs normal development it is important to seek professional help.