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Rethinking Willful behavior: Is my child defiant or is something else going on?

Willful behavior is worrisome, but good news…sometimes, your child may not be acting willfully at all. Your defiant child may be going through something else entirely.

Case in point: The task was simple, or seemingly simple. My young friend had stepped on another friend’s fingers and he needed to do the socially appropriate thing and apologize. Simple task, right? Well, not if you asked my friend. His face had turned hard, and his arms were crossed as the tension built in his little body. Not a surprise, really. I had seen this before. The last time he needed to apologize it was a full-scale meltdown, and that’s fun for exactly no one.

Behavioral science would say that his behavior was escape-maintained. In other words, he was crying and kicking because he wanted to get out of apologizing. Behavioral science would also say that the way to respond to escape-maintained behavior is to apply “escape extinction” which just means follow through until the apology was completed and not let my friend get out of completing the task.

The wisdom here is that if a child learns that they can act poorly and get out of doing something they don’t want to do, then acting poorly is likely to occur again in the future when the child wants to get out of something.

That’s a dangerous lesson for anyone to learn and it increases the frustration for both the child and the parent.

So, you just stick to your guns and make sure that apology happens, no matter what? Yes, but also no. Behavior management is so much more subtle than that, especially when you consider the deserved autonomy of the child and the fact that you would like for them to be successful in the future without needing to have a meltdown or refuse to do things that they need to do. And most importantly, forcing someone to do something NO-MATTER-WHAT is the quickest way to ensure that you are going to have all kinds of other discipline and psychological problems. We should probably agree to skip all that drama, right?

Back to my friend, with his clenched fists and angry eyebrows and rigid body. Some might call this a state of defiance or willfulness or stubbornness. I like to think of it as a stress response. This stress response is a behavior and all behavior is communication and in this case, my friend is telling me that there is something that is so overwhelming about apologizing to his friend that he is willing to go to blows with me to keep from doing it.

My job as the adult in the room is to bring calm to his chaos. That means finding out why this task is so stressful for him and giving him the tools that he needs to make it doable. If I don’t break the task down to the point where he can manage it, I’ve robbed him of the opportunity to learn how to succeed in the future. And also, I am kinda a jerk and maybe a bully.

There are all kinds of reasons why a child might refuse to complete a task, like:

·         It’s too hard, either because they don’t have the skills or it’s very time-consuming.

·         It’s too boring and it feels like a pointless use of their time.

·         It’s too complicated, either because they’ve never done it before and don’t know how or because there are too many steps and they can’t remember the order.

·         It’s not possible because the child doesn’t have the ability physically, mentally, or emotionally.

·         It’s not the right timing because something else feels much more important right at that moment.

·         It’s scary because they have tried this task in the past and it didn’t go well.

·         It feels like they are going to lose something valuable by doing this thing.

·         It feels controlling and feeling like someone is trying to control everything is no fun.

Determining what might be preventing the child from doing the task and addressing that need can reduce the stress, reduce the poor behavior, and reduce the frustration for everyone. The easiest way to do this is by breaking the task down into smaller chunks and then providing a break and praise and reinforcement for the completion of one part of the task. Once that part of the task is successful, you can increase your expectation that your child can do more of the task independently.

This is the tactic that worked for my friend. I gave him a choice to write an apology or say the apology. He chose to write the apology—and by the way, choices are powerful and help tasks get easier automatically.  In the writing process, I learned that he didn’t really know what words to say to give an apology, so we practiced it together and he gained a new skill, and he gained confidence. Postscript: the next time he needed to apologize, it was easier because we had practiced the skill and now he apologizes better than some adults I know.

Breaking down willful behavior. Is your child defiant, or is something else going on?

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