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Strategies for Managing Defiant Behavior*

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In our discussion of discipline we have highlighted that there are many reasons why children and adolescents misbehave, break rules, and defy adult authority. In this article we will focus on what we believe is the most challenging instances of defiance: the times when the defiant behavior is to such an extreme that it disrupts the family, places the child or adolescent (or others) at risk of significant harm or injury, and is deliberate (not just a reaction to frustration).

These more extreme instances of defiant behavior can stem from a variety of factors (which we will discuss below). However, they all tend to have one factor in common: the defiant behavior is part of a self-perpetuating pattern of interactions in the family. In other words, the adolescent or child engages in negative behaviors, the reactions of the parent or parents has the effect (albeit usually unintended) or reinforcing and perpetuating the behavior. For example, a teen who resents a stepparent, acts out, breaks rules and defies the stepparent, which results in the stepparent becoming increasingly critical of the teen and the teen’s biological parents and taking an angrier and harsher stance toward the teen, which in turn only fuels the teens anger and leads to more acting out. Similarly, if parents are disagreeing (having significant conflicts of their own), their child is rude and disrespectful toward one parent and the other covertly (or maybe overtly) encourages this rude behavior (laughs when the child says rude things to the parents or dismisses the rule breaking, “e.g., boys will be boys,”) the child is reinforced/encouraged to continue the negative behavior. While we are not suggesting that such patterns are the cause of extreme defiant behavior they often exacerbate such behavior.

Possible Root Causes of Severely Defiant Behavior

There are a number of factors which can contribute to severely defiant behavior.

  • Severe family problems
  • Negative peer culture
  • Substance abuse/addiction
  • Untreated underlying mental illness

Each of these problems can be the catalyst for extreme defiant behavior, and in most cases there is a combination of these factors at play. For example, the child with severe ADHD, an underlying depression or an incipient bipolar disorder, fails to receive treatment for that illness, and acts out in impulsive, aggressive and negative ways. Similarly, when there is much stress in the family environment (divorce, family conflict, financial hardship, significant illness) children and even adolescents may act out their feelings of upset and distress in negative ways. Substance abuse or addition can also account for extremely negative behavior. Finally, teens who become caught up in a negative peer culture can also be prone to extremely defiant and problematic behavior.

Strategies for Responding to Severely Defiant Behavior

Responding to an extremely defiant adolescent or child is a challenging task. Often negative behaviors are well entrenched. Our approach involves a multifaceted effort addressing problems on the level of the individual, the family, and the community (the environment in which the child or teen lives).

When possible, our therapists work individually with the child or adolescent. The focus of the individual therapy is to encourage and help children and teenagers examine their behavior, its impact on others and on their own lives, and to consider alternative courses of action. Individual work also focuses on helping children or adolescents develop new and more effective coping skills, understand and learn more effective ways to manage any psychiatric problems or disorders they may be struggling with (ranging from ADHD to substance abuse). Finally, individual work also focuses on helping children and adolescents cope more effectively with stresses in their lives (ranging from negative peer influences, to community stresses to family stresses). We understand the defiant and angry children and teenagers may not be willing to engage in individual therapy. In these instances we rely on family therapy, with the option of individual work being left open for a time when the child or adolescent is more amenable.

Family therapy is always utilized. With defiant teenagers and children, parental involvement in the treatment process is critical. Initially, much of the family therapy focuses on defusing negative cycles or patterns of interaction which exacerbate negative behavior. Therapy also focuses with parents on developing and implementing more effective ways of managing acting out and defiance. In extreme cases this may include considering and utilizing more intensive treatment options. When an underlying psychiatric disorder is present (e.g., depression, bipolar disorder or ADHD) family therapy also focuses on helping family members understand the impact of this disorder on behavior and follow through on obtaining appropriate psychiatric treatment.

Finally, we work with the family to address community and environmental stresses that may be contributing to problems. This might include working with school personnel to provide more services to address problems at school, to working to help families locate resources in the community that provide support and structure for their child or teenager.

A Final Word

We believe that even the most difficult children and adolescents can be helped. Often this is a time consuming and taxing process, that requires maximum effort on the part of parents. We are committed to working with families struggling with extremely defiant children and teens, and understand that part of our job is to help you cope with the challenges and frustrations involved.

*(This is a preliminary draft of this article, an expanded version will appear shortly to take its place.)

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