A difficult, obstinate and seemingly unpunishable little one, can easily make life at home difficult even for the most caring of parents. All of a sudden, their once beautiful baby has become a terrorist toddler, or a sweet toddler has become a defiant preschooler, or a wonderful preschooler has become a dark primary-schooler or worse, a sullen tween.
It sounds horrible I know, but there is a silver lining. You see, defiance is simply understood, as in truth, it is a good developmental sign. In fact, it is completely developmentally appropriate to be defiant, even in the baby/toddler range.
"It's totally developmentally appropriate to be difficult," explains American Academy of Paediatrics Fellow Dr. Phil Bouchard of Lincoln Paediatric Group, "Even in the 12-, 15-, and 18-month range."
Bouchard notes that it's crucial for young kids to start evaluating limits as they get into older. By defying mums and dads, they feel out the social limits, finding the differences between suggestions and rules.
Understanding the inevitability of this kind of defiance ought to take some of the sting out of it for parents. Knowing that their child is being an annoyance in the service of discovery assists parents in coping with the anger that these behaviours typically trigger. It is after all, easy to apportion blame where there is none. "It's rare a kid that's being outwardly defiant is actually trying to be a jerk." Bouchard states.
This is where problems crop up. The typical experience among parents is that defiance breeds defiance, which does not track with the concept that it's a discovering behaviour. But this idea doesn't spread because kids are stubborn, it takes place because parents respond incorrectly to "bad behaviours" so kids do not learn clear lessons. Bouchard notes that kids keep looking for boundaries when the expectations and limits are inconsistent.
"That can cause more defiance due to the fact that they just do not know what to expect," he states. "So kids keep pushing the limits further to discover where they will get pushed back. They need to push even more to find out where those boundaries really lie."
And that's how normal developmental defiance ends up being something more severe. If mums and dad are consistently inconsistent, kids will continue to press. And quickly enough those pressing habits will end up being routine. At that point, the parent has a kid with behavioural problems.
Dr. Ben Springer, academic psychologist and author of the book "Happy Kids Don't Punch You in the Face", helps mums and dads to stop the cycle of defiance. "No parent is trying to program defiance," he says. "But we inadvertently reinforce these habits like tantrums by yelling since we're simply busy. We're just trying to make it through the day."
Springer notes that it helps when mums and dads have an excellent discipline plan that works for their own kids and home. Which requires that they approach the parenting job with a bit of intention. He knows it's challenging, but it's required.
"When we do not have a strategy we generally make it up," Springer states. "And it turns out we're not great at making things up, especially coping with challenging habits."
The strategy doesn't need to be hard. But it needs to begin early", Springer notes. He recommends parents take a look at their values and select three or 4 habits that they will not endure. These behaviours can be as simple as striking or swearing. Then the parents need to set the expectations and consequences when those expectations are not fulfilled.
Springer notes that, "Parenting with intention is hard," he states. "But it's not as tough as what you're doing right now."