3 Normative Explanations for The "Defiant" Child
Part 1: Oppositional defiant behavior may be a sign of normal development
Posted May 04, 2020
This post was co-authored with Rachel Hardy, M.A.
In this three-part post, we seek to explore alternate explanations for childhood defiance or misbehavior. For part one, childhood misbehavior is conceptualized as potentially normative. In other words, we consider that—though still frustrating to parents—low levels of defiance and defiance in certain situations may indicate healthy psychological development. For part two, we explore the circumstances under which defiance could be a symptom of an emotional health problem. Finally, in part three, childhood misbehavior is considered as a potential symptom of an attentional, learning, or intellectual disorder.
Parents who are exhausted by their child's repeated and egregious misbehavior frequently turn to characterological or psychological attributions to explain their child's actions. But where exactly should parents draw the line between normal, childish actions (which can be frustrating, to be sure) and a behavioral health problem? This article uses clinical and research evidence to suggest three possible normative causes for childhood misbehavior in an effort to defend the character of the so-called "defiant child" and help parents stay aware that acting out can be a symptom of an underlying problem that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), with an estimated adolescent prevalence of up to 12.6% , is a diagnosis frequently assigned to children who exhibit symptoms relating to misbehavior, angry/irritable mood, argumentativeness/defiance, and vindictiveness. This means that children who meet the criteria for ODD often lose their temper, get annoyed easily, argue, defy requests or rules, and act in a spiteful, aggressive manner towards others.
Parents may see these behaviors and be tempted to label their inherently oppositional and temperamentally difficult child as “defiant.” But those sorts of characterological attributions could do more harm than good, and what’s worse, they don't produce any workable solutions! In fact, ODD itself is likely best understood as a label for a cluster of behavioral symptoms rather than an underlying cause of those behavioral symptoms. While this blog post has no intention to delve into the moral implications of childhood misbehavior, it's worthwhile to explore other explanations of childhood defiance that may help parents solve the root of the problem.
1. Oppositional defiance may be normative noncompliance.
How frequently does the average child ignore instructions from a caregiver? A fair rule of thumb is to expect noncompliance approximately 25 percent of the time for young children . Older children's compliance varies more widely due to a range of external factors. But when is noncompliance clinically significant? When it's intense, frequent, and long in duration . If a child refuses to comply with instructions due to a "short-lived […] desire to do something autonomously," the misbehavior should be considered normal and not of clinical interest . In other words, noncompliance, temper tantrums, and even mild physical aggression are entirely commonplace in psychologically healthy children.
To be clear, these behaviors on their own, termed “normative noncompliance,” do not warrant seeking professional intervention. However, this doesn't mean that they aren’t frustrating and upsetting for parents! The purpose of highlighting normative noncompliance is not to discourage parents from seeking help, but rather to explore child misbehavior in light of what is considered “normal” and avoid slapping an "Oppositional-Defiant" label on psychologically healthy kiddos.
2. Oppositional defiance may be a healthy expression of autonomy.
Similar to the previous point, this section seeks to make the argument that opposition to parental influence is not only normative (to a certain extent), but also a sign of a developing sense of self-efficacy and autonomy . To be clear, a child’s attempt to be autonomous does not excuse misbehavior, and it certainly does not remove their responsibility for their actions. However, understanding child development as a trajectory toward self-efficacy and autonomy may help parents who worry that their child is oppositional-defiant to consider alternative explanations. Not all defiance is deviant.
At what age should a parent expect their child to take responsibility for completing their homework assignments for school? It would be unusual for a parent to check their high-schooler's homework every night in the same way that it would be unusual for an elementary schooler's parents to avoid monitoring their child's academic performance. And if your second grader said, "Mom, you don't need to check my homework every night; I'm not a baby!" you might calmly explain that supervision of their academic progress is part of your responsibility as a parent and submitting to that supervision is part of their responsibility as a child. However, this child's frustration is not oppositional-defiant, but rather an expression of (premature) autonomy.
A particularly observant parent may choose to highlight this to elicit further development of the child's self-efficacy.
"Mom, stop asking me to show you my homework. I'm not a baby!"
"I can tell you're really excited to take responsibility for your own work, and I think that's so cool! You're growing up fast, and one day that responsibility will be completely yours. But for now, I want to make sure you're learning everything you need to in school, so we're going to keep doing homework checks."
This parent notices the child's expression of autonomy and praises their eagerness for more responsibility, but does not give up any ground on the behavior itself.
Parents of kids in middle childhood have the distinct pleasure of learning what ruthless negotiators their children have become.
"Can I stay up for an extra half hour?"
"I know you want to stay up later, but your bedtime is 9 p.m., and we're going to stick to that."
"How about 20 minutes…?"
Frustration is the natural response to this ever-repeating process of negotiation, and parents will, justifiably, say, "This is not a negotiation!" or the humorous, "This household is not a democracy!" Given that these phrases are parenting clichés, it comes as no surprise that this expression of autonomy or desire to have more control is, in fact, a normative process of development in childhood and adolescence.
Indeed, noncompliance is so normal that researchers have looked into categorizing it into different types. For example, Kuczynski, Pitman, and Twigger  differentiate between two types of noncompliance: overt and covert. Overt noncompliance may look like negotiation, argument, or outright refusal by expressions of non-acceptance. Covert noncompliance may look more like claiming to "forget" the task or internally justifying disobedience. Indeed, children are creative about much in life, and noncompliance is certainly no exception to that rule.
3. Defiance may be a sign of normative psychological stress.
To differentiate between problematic levels of internal anxiety, the phrase "normative psychological stress" is used in an effort to indicate that feeling somewhat agitated in response to an upcoming exam, a family transition, or a social situation is normal.
In part due to the knee-jerk assumption that defiant behavior is reflective of moral shortcomings or lack of proper parenting, some parents may be hesitant to consider that defiance could be an expression of anxiety. Here's an interesting fact: About 40 percent of children who meet Oppositional Defiant Disorder criteria also meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder .
While this article does not specifically address anxiety disorders as an underlying cause of defiance, the high comorbidity rate points toward a conclusion: Defiant behavior could be rooted in emotional distress. Specifically, children may behave defiantly in an attempt to control a situation where they feel anxious and helpless. Researchers have labeled this form of defiant or disruptive behavior as “reactive aggression” . This differs from “proactive aggression” in that it does not indicate the presence of an underlying callous or oppositional character trait—it is simply reactive to the stress-inducing situation the child is experiencing. In other words, children who react aggressively likely do so at times because the stressful situation prompts them to rely on psychological coping resources they have likely not yet developed—not because they are an inherently “defiant child.”
Additionally, when children experience stress or even sadness, they may also display defiant behaviors as a result of feeling unable to communicate their own internal state in a socially appropriate manner. Figuring out how to express ourselves emotionally is frustrating enough as adults. Imagine trying to do it with a 5-year-old’s vocabulary and parents monitoring your every move!
For example, an adult may try to cope with his or her life stressors by talking with trusted others, enjoying soothing foods, or simply taking a nap. But none of these examples of socially acceptable coping strategies are readily utilized by children—they may not have the words to express themselves, their parents dictate what they eat, and their daily structure and ability to take a nap is not under their control either! In scientific terms, a kid's gotta do what a kid's gotta do. Children may take to rocking, sucking their thumb, cuddling up with a teddy bear, or being excessively clingy to an attachment figure. Just as likely, though, children may also take to aggression, noncompliance, irritability, unstable emotionality, and other behaviors consistent with ODD. In sum, a child who appears defiant or aggressive may simply be feeling unable to cope with their normative life stressors.
Much is written about over-pathologizing normative experiences and behaviors (see here for a review). And in the case of childhood defiance, we want to look deeper and see what is motivating children towards misbehavior before we slap the ODD label on them. Is their behavior in line with their developmental stage? Are they trying to be autonomous? Do they feel stressed and frustrated by something in their environment? These are all questions that are all too often overlooked when parents (and clinicians) get ready to label a child as defiant.
Why is labeling accurately—or, just as importantly, choosing not to label—so meaningful? The defiant label stigmatizes the child as inherently “bad” or comparatively worse than other children. This has implications relating to self-esteem, self-fulfilling prophecy, and parental interventions. Additionally, viewing defiance as a fundamental personality flaw could lead to two equally dangerous outcomes: 1) it could absolve parents and child of the responsibility to be agents of change, since personality is often viewed as relatively stable, or 2) it could lead to parents feeling hopeless about ever-improving their child’s behavior and perhaps even giving up trying. It should be noted that our hope is not to discourage parents from seeking treatment for their child's misbehavior, but rather to empower parents with knowledge about defiant behavior so that they are better equipped to tackle their child's behavior problems.
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