Parenting: Protesting versus Defiance

A question I am often asked in my practice is, what to allow in terms of protest from a child.  I think the general rule with this is not to allow defiance or disrespect.  However, children are people too, they have their own thoughts and feelings, so it is also important to tolerate some protest.  How do we know what crosses the line from protest to defiance?

The first question to consider is, what is respectful and what is disrespectful protest?  I think there are some variations in where this line would be drawn from one household to another.  For example, a door being slammed is not likely something I’m going to take on as a prohibited protest in my family.  It really doesn’t hurt anything (barring a child trying to break the door with the slamming); it is a statement from the child that they don’t like what’s happening.  However, I am not likely to tolerate eye rolling, as I find this to be extremely disrespectful.  I guess the difference for me is that one is away from me and one is a direct interaction with me and action towards me.  But another household may tolerate eye rolling, but not door slamming.  I think deciding where your boundaries will be and then sticking to those is what is important when it comes to this determination.  There are a few things to consider when making your own boundaries of what you will tolerate and what you will not.  The most important of those is thinking about what would be tolerated in the real world and what would not be.  If my child were to roll his eyes at a future employer, he would be likely to be fired.  However, if he went to a separate location outside of the earshot of the employer and slammed a door, there would likely be no consequences for this.  Cussing at, refusing a request, or yelling at, however, are behaviors that should not be tolerated in any household, as I think it can be agreed upon universally that these behaviors would be considered disrespectful in any setting.

The next question seems to be a little more clear-cut: What defines defiance? Defiance goes beyond simple protest, it is a refusal to comply with the requested action.  For example, if a child was told to clean their room and refuses to do so, that would be defiance.  Also, if the youth were told they could not go out, and then goes anyway, this refusal would be defiance as well.  One thing is very clear in parenting, defiance can NEVER be tolerated.  As soon as a parent begins to allow a child to defy them, even with a simple task, they are beginning to lose control over that child, and it is extremely likely that the youth will defy more often and it will lead to defiance about bigger issues.  It is very important that the order of power within a family remain intact, that children understand the parents are always in charge.  Of course, I am in no way advocating doing this in a militant manner, as this is likely to inspire the very defiance we are trying to avoid.  But it is very important that every child within a household understand, through experience, that defiance is never tolerated.  Will a child test those limits from time to time, absolutely! It is their developmental task to test limits.  When the parent reinforces that limit with an appropriate consequence, the child is again sent the message that defiance will not be allowed, and things return to a healthy state where everyone knows their role.

It is not uncommon for parents to bring their teens to me for therapy, stating that their child has been very defiant, taking off in the car when told not to, refusing to do chores or other tasks around the home, or refusing to go to school.  The teen is often cussing at or even physically confronting the parent.  Often the parents tell me initially that this behavior is new and that prior to this beginning, there were no issues in the household.  Further investigation, however, inevitably reveals that there has been previous defiance.  That the child has gotten away with things like not doing assigned chores or refusing to listen to smaller directives (turning off the TV, going to bed at a certain time, cleaning their room, etc.).  Usually these smaller actions of defiance have been ignored by the parent.  Maybe if the child doesn’t load the dishwasher, then the parent just does it instead.  Or if they were told to turn off the TV and ignore the directive, the parent just goes about what they were doing and doesn’t follow through with making sure the directive is complied with.  If this is the case, then there usually hasn’t been much conflict within the household, but this is not because the child’s behavior was appropriate, it is just because the parent has chosen to deal with the defiance by ignoring it.  All the while the child is getting the message more and more that they do not actually have to listen to their parent, that their defiance has no real consequences, and that their parent does not really have authority.  When this child hits the teen years and the stakes go up, they are simply doing what they have always done, ignoring the parent’s directives.  The problem is, now the topic is one that holds more weight and that the parent can not ignore (like not going to school or taking the car when told not to) and the teen is likely defying in a more aggressive manner (yelling or cussing at the parent, saying no in a direct way, being physically intimidating) instead of just ignoring the parent’s directives, like when they were younger.

This is why defiance can not be tolerated.  It changes the balance of power in a manner that will create bigger problems as the child ages.  It teaches the child that your words don’t really mean anything.  It sends the message that your child can really do whatever they want.  And it communicates to the child that you really don’t have any power over them or their actions.  Dealing with defiance is something that will be addressed in a future article.  But for now, I hope this has everyone thinking about what protesting you want to allow, where your lines are between respect and disrespect, and if you are allowing defiance in your home. It can be easier at times to allow behavior that shouldn’t be allowed or to shut down all protesting, but doing either of these can lead to problems in the future.  So, remember, thinking through these issues and being a mindful parent will lead to appropriate expression by the child and good limits within the household.  It will lead to a more peaceful home with reduced conflict and emotionally healthy family members!

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