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Sports Reduces Defiance in Children and Teens

Parenting expert Andy Earle suggests 5 steps for breaking down ODD.

For example, defiance is often expressed by resisting mom or dad's leadership. That’s not helpful. But when the negative energy of defiance is channeled into sports it can be transformed into positive energy. Drive, ambition, determination—all of these constructive qualities emerge when defiance is given a productive outlet.

Further, the cardio workouts that sports provide also burn off the pent-up physical, psychic and emotional tension that fuels defiance. Once this tension is released, defiance becomes less gratifying.

But how do you convince a defiant kid to start playing sports? I posed this question to Andy Earle, an expert on dealing with difficult teenagers. Andy is a researcher who studies adolescent behavior and parent-teen communication, and he hosts the Talking to Teens Podcast. I asked Andy what you could say to convince a defiant kid to take up a new sport and start getting exercise.

Here’s what Andy had to say:

A 5-Step Script To Break Down Defiance

I’m going to provide a roadmap for having a conversation with a defiant child about starting a new sport. We’ll break the talk into five discrete stages and work through them step by step. I’ve found that the more vulnerable parents can be in their communication the better their results will be, especially when they are dealing with highly defiant children.

Step 1: Be Like Superman. For the first phase of the conversation, take some inspiration from the Man of Steel. In Superman comic books, people are always getting themselves into trouble and Superman is constantly having to save the day. But the Man of Steel never chastises victims for their carelessness or recklessness. He never points out that the whole situation was really their own fault and next time they should really be more careful. This blameless attitude is part of the reason that Superman is so loved by the citizens of Metropolis.

I recommend parents follow Superman’s example. Don’t blame your child for the fact that they aren’t getting enough exercise: Take on all of the blame yourself. Don’t call them lazy. Don’t ask why they aren’t exercising more. Don’t say you thought you raised them better. (See "5 Ways Parents Enrage Their Kids.") Instead, try using a line like, “I’m really mad at myself. I made a big mistake. I haven’t made exercise a priority in our family and I’ve set a really bad example.”

Step 2: Focus on Feelings, Not Facts. I know I said the point of this conversation was to convince your child to start getting more exercise. But I want to be really careful with the word “convince” because that word can imply that we’re going to be using rational arguments and logical reasoning to explain the benefits of exercise to your child. And that’s not what I’m suggesting at all.

There are two main problems with taking a logical approach: First, studies show that humans don’t use facts to make decisions; we use them to justify decisions we’ve already made. Second, your child already knows the basic facts about exercise, and are aware that they “should” be doing more of it.

Don’t talk about calories in and calories out. Don’t mention the importance of cardiovascular fitness. Don’t provide any facts whatsoever. Instead, try focusing on emotions. First, empathize with how your child is feeling right now. Then tell them how good it will make you feel when they start a new sport.

For instance, you could say, “Hey, I hear you. It pisses you off when people tell you what to do and it makes you feel trapped and cornered. I get that. I’m talking about this because I really feel like a bad parent for letting exercise slip off our family agenda and I won’t feel like I’m taking care of you as a mom until we get some kind of regular organized physical activity into our family routine.”

Step 3: Use an Autonomy Affirmation. Defiant children will fiercely resist doing whatever you ask or tell them to do. Researchers who study this type of resistance refer to it as “psychological reactance” and we’ve discovered a few interesting things about how it works. All humans have a need for autonomy. We like to feel that we’re in control of our own lives and that nobody tells us what we can and can’t do. This need is so strong that any time our sense of autonomy is threatened we fight hard to resist the threat.

As an example, imagine that you told your child that you’d like them to start playing soccer and you then went ahead and signed them up for a neighborhood team. That’s a huge threat to your child’s autonomy. Even if they like soccer, and like all the kids on the team, your child might throw a huge fit about the fact that you just signed them up without giving them a choice.

Our research shows that the more choices and freedom you give your child, the easier it will be to get them to go along with whatever you are asking. To achieve this, I recommend using a technique called an “autonomy affirmation." This means you’ll remind your child that ultimately they are the boss of their own life and that you’ll give them a choice.

You might say something like, “Listen, you’re a big kid and I’m not going to force you to do anything you don’t want to do. This is your life and you’re the boss of your life. You might decide you hate all sports and don’t want to play any, and that’s OK. But if you were going to choose a sport to try out just a few times, what might it be?”

Step 4: Elicit “Change Talk." It’s much easier to get someone talking about something in the abstract than it is to go straight into making a specific plan. That’s why in Step 3 I didn’t suggest asking your child what sport they want to start next week. I specifically used the word might. This wording is critical. I suggested that you ask, “If you were going to choose a new sport to try just a few times, what might it be?”

Keep it theoretical and it will be much easier to get a response. If your child says they aren’t interested in any sport, you’ll want to acknowledge their resistance and then repeat the question again with even more emphasis on the might and the if you were portions. So that would look like this: “I hear you there. I know starting a sport isn’t something you’re really interested in right now and I get that. But if you were going to try a sport, just for a few times, what might you be most interested in trying?”

Once you get your teen to name a sport, it’s time for a trick from Motivational Interviewing. This is a framework that therapists use specifically for dealing with highly resistant clients. There are a couple of steps. First, ask your child, on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being the lowest and 10 being the highest, how ready would they be to try the sport just once in the next couple of weeks. Then, once you get a number out of them, ask the following question, “Why didn’t you choose a lower number?”

Even if your child chooses a low number like 3 or 2, this still works. You would say, “I hear that. I understand it’s not high on your priority list. But can I ask why you didn’t choose a lower number? Why didn’t you say 1?”

The goal here is to get your child to start talking themselves into it. Whatever comes out of their mouth next will be a reason that they might want to try the sport. Therapists call this “change talk” because your kid is talking about why they might want to change their behavior. This is great.

For instance, your child might say something like, “Well, I guess it would be a little fun to learn karate moves like Jackie Chan.” That’s change talk.

Step 5: Dig Deeper. Now you’re ready to start motivating your child. This is where we are going to uncover their real, true, deep motivation. You’re going to ask some variation of the question, “Why is that important to you?”

Usually, it’s not enough to ask this question just once. According to Michael Pantalon, the author of Instant Influence, you need to ask "Why?" a total of five times to get to your child’s true deep motivation.

You’ll know you’ve gotten to your child’s true deep motivation when they are talking to terms of one of their three Core Needs: Love, Independence, or Power. You need to keep asking “why is that important” until you get to one of these three Core Needs.

Wrapping it Up

Once you’ve completed these five steps, your child may finally be ready to make a plan. Again, you’ll want to affirm their autonomy and defer to them. Ask, “What should we do next?” or “How should we get started?” and let them tell you how they’d like to proceed. That’s all there is to it. Good luck.

For more of Andy Earle's great advice about ODD click here.

To listen to the Talking to Teens audio interview for this article, click here.