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An interview with Dr. Claudia M. Gold, MD

The terrible twos, (or threes! And fours? ) have passed. I always figured 5 & 6 meant cruising along until the teenage years, right? Most decidedly wrong. These years are rich with peer influence and the perils of newfound independence. With that clearly brings on more of a need to separate, individuate, and make Mama crazy with the kind of “no” that comes with an emphatic and hard to dismiss argument. Many kids engage in an even trickier type of misbehavior, an in-your-face rule-breaking – a brand-new kind of outright decision to go against Mama’s wishes. Dr. Claudia M. Gold, MD, author of, Keeping Your Child in Mind, tunes us in to our children’s perspective so we can do our best to see this newest phase through! — Laurel Moglen, Web Content Producer, TMC

When a child basically knows the difference between right and wrong (at age 5 & 6) and chooses to do wrong, or consciously break the rules, or behaves impudently, how should a parent react?

A child showing a lack of respect is among the most upsetting experiences for a parent. However, “impudence” is an adult interpretation of a child’s behavior and that is not usually the child’s intention.

Most “defiant” behavior comes from a feeling that things are out of control, and that a child’s feelings are not recognized. In fact, the parent’s experience and the child’s experience are quite similar. The parent, in being treated with what you refer to as “impudence” is not being “seen’ or not being recognized for who she is, namely an adult deserving of respect. A parent might have had other experiences of being “not seen” perhaps by a spouse, co-worker  or by her own parents, that makes her particularly vulnerable to getting upset about not being “seen” by her child.

In almost every instance of “defiant behavior,” if one digs a bit below the surface, there is a way the child is also not being seen, or a way in which her experience is not recognized. For a particularly dramatic example, a 6 year-old was brought to my practice with a chief complaint of “defiant behavior.” Further history revealed significant trauma in the child’s life. An alcoholic father who had abandoned the child as a toddler had recently been making visits at which time he was often drunk and very loud. Yet these visits had not been discussed until their visit with me for the child’s “defiant” behavior,” particularly around bedtime. Once a child feels that he is being seen, that his experience is recognized and understood, the “defiance” or related difficult behavior often evaporates.

Is there anything parents can do to lesson the impulse to act defiantly?

In general, if there is increasing “defiance” it is important to take a step back and try to understand what feels out of control for the child. It might be that he is very sensitive to loud noises or taste and battles around ‘making a scene” at a family outing or being  “picky eater” are related to these sensory sensitivities. It might be that there is a new baby and everyone is chronically sleep deprived. Or there may be financial stress or marital conflict. Simply recognizing that these things are difficult for a child and acknowledging his experience, even if the stressors are still there, goes a long way in having a child feel understood, and in turn decreasing “defiant” behavior.

What are kids exploring when behaving defiantly? Why is this defiant attitude happening?

It may be that a child is getting a sense that aggressive feelings are bad and so there is no outlet for normal healthy aggression. Behavior that hurts other people is never OK and clear limits must be set on this behavior. But it is important for a child to know that angry feelings are OK. For example, a child may be told that he must always play nice, even in pretend. Then angry feelings may lead to increased “defiant” behavior.

Are these acts of defiance a phase, or possibly a long-term issue?

The more a child has the language skills to express his feelings, the less likely he is to act them out. Thus “defiance” is common in toddlers when saying “no” may be the only means they have to have some control of their environment. If an older child, as in the example above, has the ability to articulate “I’m afraid to be alone at night because I think about those visits with my father” then he will be less likely to behave in a way that seems “defiant.”

Could you give us 5 top tips for rules to stick by?

  1. Be curious about the meaning of your child’s behavior.
  2. Show empathy for your child’s feelings.
  3. Help your child to manage and contain difficult feelings by setting limits on behavior.
  4. Recognize how your child may “push your buttons” and work to put your feelings of distress aside. Yoga or other activities that help with self regulation may be useful.
  5. Once you have done these 4, then positive reinforcement and sticker charts can be helpful.

Dr. Claudia M. Gold, MD, has practiced general and behavioral pediatrics for over twenty years. She has written a column on children’s mental health for the Boston Globe and writes regularly for her blog Child in Mind. She also authored the book, Keeping Your Child in Mind. She lives with her husband and children in Egremont, Massachusetts.

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out the first episode of our children’s series, “Ruby’s Studio: The Feeling Show.” We want to be a parenting tool….For you!

Posted in: Behavioral Issues, Expert Advice, Learn