"No! I WON'T Do It!": What Your Child's Defiant and Controlling Behaviors May Be Telling You
We all love to watch our children grow up, become their own person with their own unique personality. However, there comes a time - usually around age 2 or 3 - that this little personality of theirs also includes defiance. No longer will they do what you say without pushing the limits or asking "why?". It can begin to feel like we are constantly in frustrating power struggles with our kiddos, both of us wanting our way until one gives in.
So how do we decrease these power struggles so that our relationship with our child becomes more like a collaboration and less like a battle? Let's start with understanding the developmental usefulness of defiant and controlling behaviors.
Around age 2 & 3, pushing boundaries, testing limits, and saying "No!" is your child's job. Developmentally, your child is beginning to become their own person - a process called individuation - and in order to feel safe to explore and engage in the world without you, they need to learn the boundaries and limits of their world through trial and error. One way this shows up, which I'm sure sounds familiar, is when as a parent you find yourself saying, "how many times have I told you, we don't __________!" It may seem like your child knows not to do something, and does it anyway. This is them testing boundaries to learn what is acceptable and not acceptable, and because their brains are still developing, it may take breaking the rules over and over until it sinks in.
In addition to testing boundaries in order to become more independent, children also want more control. As we all can relate to, the world can feel scary, but especially to your child's highly emotional, underdeveloped brain. When we feel scared, we like to use control to help us feel safe. I can think of how I continue to do this in my adulthood: when the world feels out of control as it has this year, my go-to is to make detailed schedules and lists to help me feel more in control of my life and to make it feel more predictable. Your child is doing the same thing when you notice their controlling behaviors.
Parent: "Here's your orange popsicle!"
Child: "I want grape!"
Parent: "I got you orange, it's just as good."
Child; "No! I'm getting grape!" - Child runs to the freezer and makes a mess as they aim to find their grape flavored popsicle.
As our children navigate the world slowly but surely on their own, it will feel overwhelming and scary, because it is new and unknown to them. When you notice they want to be in charge of every little thing, or get really upset when they don't get to decide something, they are telling us that it feels really hard, scary, or sad to not have control.
Now that we've discovered what is underneath our child's controlling and defiant behaviors, let's talk about how to take this into our relationship with them. Truth is, your children can't always be in control. As their parent, you are ultimately in charge of most things and they cannot rule the roust. So this process is two-fold: First, we focus on what your child CAN be in control of:
Instead of: "Put your shoes on, it's time to go" ---> Try: "Do you want to wear your sneakers today or your sandals?"
Instead of "Here's your orange popsicle" ---> Try: "Would you like grape or orange?"
It's always helpful to focus on what your child CAN have or CAN do, rather than what they can't. This reframe helps your child's brain to develop and internal locus of control - meaning when the outside world feels chaotic and overwhelming, they will look inwardly on what they do have control over, which gives them a better sense of empowerment and resilience. When we focus solely on what can't happen, they can develop an external locus of control - meaning when the world feels chaotic and overwhelming, they will feel helpless and powerless until the world changes.
Second, we deal with disappointment. Inevitably, the choices you offer may never be good enough for what your child really wants, and they will put up a fight. It may look like a tantrum or emotional upset, which makes sense! Your child wants to do something and they are being told no. That is very disappointing, especially to the little ones since their reasoning brain doesn't quite understand yet why they can't do something. Often, if your child has a hard time being told "no" or listening to boundaries, they have a hard time feeling disappointment (sadness). In these moments, validate that the boundary or limit IS disappointing and reassure your child that they get to feel disappointed about it. Once you've validated the disappointment or upset, this is a great time to instill the life lesson of "sometimes, we have to do things we don't want to do."
With time, and of course with modeling how you handle your own disappointment, your child's spongey brain will create neural pathways that help them deal with being told no in a regulated, resilient way. Remember, your child doesn't want to make things more difficult. When you see their behavior as communication, we get to know what is underneath the control and defiance and connect with our kids on a deeper level, all while developing resilience, emotional intelligence, and empathy.
Jamie Quail, MA, LPCC is a Child & Family Therapist and Owner of Wise Nest Counseling, LLC offering play therapy and parent coaching sessions in Boulder, CO.