Defiance vs. Lack of Skills

You can watch the video version of this post on my Facebook page.

Today, I want to talk about DEFIANCE. So many parents that joined the Parenting Posse cite defiance or a refusal to listen as the thing about their kids that drives them BATSHIT CRAZY. I’ve been running the Posse for about 4ish years. And before that, I was an early interventionist for 10ish years. So I feel pretty confident in saying that your child is NOT defiant. Your child is lacking skills.

I am a FIRM believer in children do well if they can.

And I did NOT coin that phrase, that phrase is from Dr. Ross Greene. But I have adopted it and I will sing it from the rooftops until everyone gets it through their heads: KIDS DO WELL IF THEY CAN. They don’t enjoy having you yell at them. They don’t enjoy having demands put on them that they can’t fulfill. They don’t enjoy messing up. They don’t enjoy being rushed and reprimanded. NONE OF THAT IS FUN- for ANYONE! And I don’t care how firmly you feel that your child is just trying to get a rise out of you- don’t get me wrong- they might be. BUT they’re trying to get a rise out of you because they don’t have the skills to CONNECT with you and meet your expectations. Defiance is a STRESS BEHAVIOUR. They say no and refuse to comply because they don’t have the skills to do what you’re asking.

Let me be clear: I’m not talking about physical ability. Whenever I start talking about skills, I inevitably get someone who gets their back up and is determined to prove me wrong- why, I’m not exactly sure, apparently some people want to believe that their child is just a little shit- and starts in on some variation of “Oh they totally know how to put their shoes on! They totally know how to come to the table for dinner! They are completely capable of coming when called.” I don’t doubt your child has the physical ability or the rote knowledge of what they should be doing. But there is SO MUCH MORE INVOLVED to complying with directions than just knowing what you’re supposed to be doing and the physical ability to do it.

What I’m talking about is the mental skills- the mental tools- to run all the processes that need to run in order to comply with whatever it is you’re asking them to do. Anyone who has heard me talk about skills for any length of time knows that my favourite example of this is putting on your shoes- because it’s such a simple task and yet there is so much involved in completing it, and probably every parent I’ve ever met has complained that their child won’t put their shoes on when they’re told. So you say to your child- “put your shoes on, we’re going to the store”. First, they need to use their flexible thinking skills to stop what it is that they’re currently doing and set shift into this new task you’ve dumped in their lap- generally without any warning. Then they need to use their task initiation skills to actually get up and start doing it. THEN they need to use their working memory skills to remember where the heck their shoes are, and find them. They need to use their organizational skills to make sure they have both shoes and- depending on the style of shoe- two socks. Once they’ve stopped what they’re doing, started this new task, remembered where their things are, and gotten their supplies all together then they have to use their planning and prioritizing skills to put their socks on before their shoes, lift the tongue of the shoe- again, depending on the style- and loosen the laces before putting their foot in. Once their foot is in they have to use their working memory and planning and prioritizing skills to tie the laces or do up the velcro. And through ALL of this, they are using their self-monitoring skills and impulse control skills to make sure they’re not being too loud, not going to fast, not in anyone’s way, and got getting distracted.

Can we see the sheer number of skills required to comply with a simple request like “Put your shoes on please?” And- I’ll note- they can only access these skills if they’re calm. If they’re stressed in any way shape or form these skills go in their neural vault filed under “protect until safe.” That means if your child is tired, hungry, sleepy, angry, overly excited, needs to poop, is worried about anything, etc. They do not have access to these tools so that they can use them. And often- just asking them abruptly to stop what they’re doing and put their shoes on is a stressor. PLUS if your child is weak in any one or multiple of these skills- that’s a weak link in the chain and the whole sequence falls to hell.

This is not my first rodeo. I have been in this game for a LONG TIME at this point- and I have yet to meet a typical child who- given consistent reinforcement of their weak skills- remains defiant.

So the next time your child is defiant- I want you to try and take a closer look and try to identify the skills that they may be missing and therefore are unable to comply with your request.

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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