Do Not Lose Heart Over a Defiant Child

Truth, secrets and seven ways for parents to grapple

Posted Mar 13, 2014

A few parents are in unthinkable pain because of a kid who shatters the mold. Some kids are a tour-de force. A child from any upbringing – loving or neglectful, wealthy or not – might be prone to dangerous action.

There are many reasons. It can be a phase, a symptom or character style, an absence of healthy anxiety or too much anxiety. An inflated sense of freedom or an inability to process limits might be at play. Inborn temperament, genetics, biology, cultural influences, wrong decisions at wrong times or uncontrollable circumstances catalyze these behaviors. Defiance may be an attention plea or make no sense at all, but it can rock parents to the core.

Kids who violate property, wield knives, molest, run away, hold parties that get themselves or the parents arrested, do or deal drugs, cheat, steal, lie and defensively accuse others take a toll.

The child-as-offender idea is disturbing and even taboo, but the good news is that a developing mind is malleable. Dr. Clarice Kestenbaum, Columbia University child psychiatrist, said that in spite of stormy psyches and turbulent stages there is “a biological imperative towards health.” The tripping point is that parental denial or shame, depression or helplessness, and/or fear or despair can stall problem solving.

Privately a parent might say, “Is this really happening? Am I seeing this correctly? Surely there must be some explanation? There is something missing from the story, someone got it wrong. This will never happen again. It’s a one-time thing. “

Sometimes parents cannot fathom the truth because love can blind and because given how they see themselves and their history, the situation does not make sense. They struggle to understand. Endless second chances stem from a positive impulse but perpetuate the behavior. Denial may be the only big mistake.

Parent blame is common but can be a harsh and misguided – feeling judged by others adds to the agony – as loving parents may the biggest victims of all. Troubled parents can produce angelic kids and nurturing parents can produce hard-edged kids. Parents may try to handle the tempest alone because of pride, a belief about family sanctity or because professional help feels like something they just don’t do. The whole matter may be a wrenching secret.

Confrontation of the child in the home can provoke umbrage, accusation, rage, threats or a bolt. For parents, the sense of helplessness or fury can be overwhelming. Parents have told me they have tried everything from begging to blackmail when dialogue and discipline fail. Feeling helpless leads to thoughts they fear are unacceptable. Thoughts such as:

 “I cannot believe how angry I am all the time.”

“I wish I had never had him.”

“I wish I could put her up for adoption.”

“I want to run away myself.”

“I wish she had never been born.”

Someone once called me as his terrifying daughter was being released from a locked ward and he feared she would hurt his wife and son. She had chased them with knives before. Technically, the child did not meet the criteria for extended hospitalization.

While there is no formula, dealing with the truth is a critical first step. Denying the problem can mitigate in the moment – but inflate over time.

Here are seven ways to grapple:

  1. Understand who your child is biologically: longstanding temperament, personality, drive, energy level, capacity to live within limits, ability to process information.
  2. Examine the circumstances that might be exacerbating biology. Are there outer influences from which he or she could be removed that would help? We can compensate for biology to some extent with environment.
  3. Listen to what they say and what they do not say. Note your own reactions. Do you feel gullible when they say they will change? Do you sense that they are lying and do you feel manipulated? Whatever it is, face it and let it be there as uncomfortable as it may be because there is a next step.
  4. Use your inner feelings to tell you what to do. Core responses are clues to truths so do not judge. Do not feel guilty or deny negative feelings and thoughts, rather honor their communication capacity so you can face the truth and find the solution.
  5. Do not be afraid to get the right help. If it involves an intense commitment to treatment, it could be worth it and make life much better in the long run.
  6. Make sure you trust the professionals and their recommendations because what’s required may be hard for you to stomach. For example, you may be a free spirited person and the treatment requires strong limits. Educate yourself about the suggested care, think critically and try to be at peace with the plan of action. This should ultimately offer relief for all.
  7. Do not blame yourself or your spouse but be honest if your own behavior plays a role; enabling, denial, discomfort with discipline. We all have issues, wishes, distortions and leanings so being curious – not critical – about them goes a long way.

Know that with excellent intervention, kids can channel off-the-chart intensities.Troubled kids might become high-flying forces of good. It’s a common tale that the upstart ceases transgressions because he or she realizes it is not worth it. Learning to be uncomfortable with violating impulses is part of getting well and is totally possible.


Don’t lose heart. People do change.