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The Science of Defiance

When is defiant behavior typical? When does it indicate a disability?

Louise, of Medford, NJ, has a 6-year-old son, Michael, who exhibits “oppositional defiant behavior.” The 1st grader talks and interrupts excessively, refuses to follow directions and torments his older, autistic brother.

A degree of defiant behavior is common in children of all ages. Michael is an atypical example in that he requires professional help.

“All kids engage in ‘problem’ behavior. It’s very normal, don’t panic,” advises Barry McCurdy, PhD, who directs the Center for Effective Schools, a division of Devereux, in King of Prussia, PA. But when does defiant behavior become a disability?

Michael’s story

While Louise is well prepared to manage her son’s outbursts and approaches him in the calmest manner possible — a strategy for managing negative behavior — he is relentless.

At home, Michael displays more problem behavior than he does at school, which is not unusual. So far, his  school psychologist hasn’t diagnosed him with a disability. If that happens, Michael would receive an individualized education plan (IEP), giving him additional resources.

Last year, however, Michael’s behavior did warrant observation, and Louise was called to school for an early intervention. “In schools, the emphasis is, ‘Let’s try to do something to address the behavior before it worsens,’” says Dr. McCurdy.

For a student such as Michael, a pre-referral team — teachers, counselors and a school psychologist — designs a plan to tackle problem behavior before a formal evaluation or diagnosis is needed.

Tips for Parents

Here are suggestions to manage typical defiant child behavior.

• Lose the tough love approach. “It’s not a good solution,” says Barry McCurdy, PhD, director of Devereux’s Center for Effective Schools. If you need guidance teaching your child alternative behaviors, consider a parent-training program.

• Choose positive words. “Stay away from don’t and can’t,” advises diagnostician Catherine Chase of the Pediatric Wellness Center. Rephrase often. For example, instead of saying, “Don’t throw your toys,” try something like, “Let’s put the toys in place.”

• De-stress. Keeping a level head will help you stay calm and collected. Seek out a parent support group if you need peer support and reassurance. “It’s empowering for the parent,” says Chase.

• Pick your battles. “It helps to prioritize which behaviors are most disruptive or damaging,” Chase explains. Pick one or two problem behaviors to focus on, and remember to stay positive.

• Avoid “why.” When you’re conversing with your child, limit asking “why,” which can impose guilt and can trigger negative reactions, says Chase.

Defiance as a disability

According to Catherine Chase, a psycho-educational diagnostician for the Pediatric Wellness Network in Cherry Hill, NJ, defiant behaviors may indicate an emotional disability if they include four or more of the following “red flags” and last six months or more:

  • Hostility toward family, peers and teachers
  • Persistent negative attitude
  • Refusal to follow orders or directions
  • Aggression toward others, both verbal and physical
  • Anger that quickly becomes rage
  • Blaming others for mistakes or misbehavior
  • Loss of most or all friendships
  • Ongoing problems in school or with law enforcement 

If it seems possible your child has an emotional disability, seek out a professional. The earlier negative behaviors are addressed, the better the outcome.

Treatment options

For younger children, treatment focuses on helping parents and family members gain the skills to manage negative behaviors. Medication is sometimes used for children who have multiple disorders. That is the case for Michael, who is also diagnosed with ADHD.

Other treatments can include individual and family therapy, social skills education, behavior modification and cognitive therapy. All are aimed at teaching a child to develop problem-solving skills, effective coping methods and acceptable ways to control anger.

Michael receives regular behavioral and talk therapy. “As the years go on, hopefully it will help,” says Louise.

Tips for parents

Raising a child can be a difficult job, and in most instances, some defiant behavior is typical. Dealing with it isn’t an inherent skill, so being prepared is an important step. Role modeling and recognizing positive behavior are also key.

“Catch children being good and give high praise,” advises Dr. McCurdy. “Your role as a parent is to teach appropriate behavior, because kids can learn.”

Erin Kane is a local freelance writer.

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