Georgette Hunter-Franklin does not abide by anyone saying her son is “bad.”
“Food goes bad; people are not bad,” she says with a laugh, speaking about herspirited 7-year-old son, Hunter. “People are complicated. They have bad days, they have challenges, and that’s OK.”
The local mom is one of many parents who have “spirited” children—those who test boundaries or are even openly oppositional. This year Hunter, a smart and athletic boy, faced consequences countless times at school for his behavior, which memorably included a verbal standoff with a staff member after they tried to correct him for skipping in the hallways. For his mom, these missteps require what she calls “fierce accountability” but are also only a part of the whole child, and she recognizes that some of the characteristics that cause friction now, like questioning authority and an independent spirit, could be helpful to Hunter as an adult.
But when do willfulness or behavioral challenges like Hunter’s cross over into defiance—or possibly even a diagnosis of a deeper issue? And what can be done to parent children who test boundaries, both small and large?Some experts, like child intervention specialist and best-selling author Joe Newman, are leaning away from the traditional approaches of discus- sion and medication and toward a more compassionate approach to dealing with “spirited” kids.The first step: understanding that not all oppositional behavior is created equal.
CHASING THE WHY
“I’ve never met a child who hasn’t argued with an adult,” says Renee Lexow of Bella Living Psychological Services in Fort Worth, “and some of that is totally normal and developmentally appropriate.”
Lexow, who has a doctorate in clinical forensic psychology, points out that some boundary testing is an important part of understanding how the world works. “As adults, we learn that there are some rules that can be bent, some that can be broken, and some that can be neither bent nor broken,” she says. For instance, many adults who would not shoplift or commit assault might be open to crossing the street against the traffic light. “Children pick up on that concept quickly,” Lexow explains, “and they are testing and trying to determine which rules can be bent and which cannot.”
She says that this type of boundary testing and other strong-willed behaviors, such as questioning authority, asserting themselves and being independent, are actually signs of social intelligence and personal growth. This is the defining difference between boundary-testing behavior and defiance: If a child has a specific and reasonably logical reason for not wanting to do something, they are likely testing a boundary in a developmentally appropriate way. “If your child says they don’t like peas, that’s not being defiant,” Lexow says. “That’s more independence, and that is a good thing. Asserting yourself is a necessary skill for an adult and we want to foster that.”
Spirited kids are often branded as “bad,” but their behavior is more complex than a single label—and, most important, fixable.
Hunter-Franklin says her son is more of a boundary-tester and that while she will always find a consequence for his mis- behavior, she knows that some of those strong-willed character traits are beneficial. “I see that he could be a CEO one day with his ability to question things and his independent thinking,” she explains, “so I find ways to address what he did wrong while still accepting these parts of him.”
Such behavior might instead be called defiance if the child generally refuses to comply seemingly without a rational reason or deliberately breaks a rule and cannot explain why.
That’s not to say there isn’t a why—there can be many, up to and including underlying mental health conditions and behavior disorders.
Candice Grisham is a teacher for the Bridge Program, a pilot program at Mesquite Independent School District (adapted from a similar program at Allen ISD) that teaches social and behavioral skills to kids who struggle in a typical classroom. She says that finding the source of defiant behavior is the key to correcting it. “We use this phrase a lot: ‘Chase the why.’”
The first thing she asks parents is what time their child goes to bed. “Kids need sleep,” she explains, “and if they don’t get enough, their behaviors are intensified.”
Lexow agrees, explaining that oppositional behavior that’s not linked to a diagnosable condition can be caused by a number of things, including sleep and food. “Diet can be a big factor,” she says. “Too much sugar or caffeine can often lead to irritability.”
Environment can also be a major contributor as a child seeks a way to deal with what they perceive to be chaos at home. “This can be something big like changes in their environment, but it can also be a lack of stability and regularity in routines, or inconsistent rules and punishments at home,” Lexow explains.
Grisham says she sees this play out in the school setting. “In school, when a child is defiant, they are wanting to be in control of their situation,” she shares.
Or, Lexow says, defiance might simply be a personality trait. “Sometimes it can just be a natural disposition to be stubborn,” she explains.
On the other hand, misbehavior can actually be symptomatic of a deeper issue. The cause of unexplained strong-willed behavior might be attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism or mood disorders like depression. The best way to determine whether there is a condition linked to the behavior is to seek outside testing from a professional.
MORE THAN A BAD DAY
Tarrant County mom Alexandra Villanuevos (not her real name) says her daughter Nina struggles with impulse control and exhibits a general lack of participation. “Her interactions with people didn’t go well—she has a hard time making friends and working with people,” Villanuevos explains. “We took her to therapy, and she wouldn’t participate in the therapy.”
Villanuevos recounts the day she knew that something was seriously amiss with her daughter: While at an after-school program at the YMCA, Nina decided—obviously against the rules—to leave and walk home on her own. She got lost on the way and ended up getting into a car with a man she didn’t know. “Thankfully the man drove her to our neighbor’s house without issue,” Villanuevos says. “But I was so terrified. I was angry-crying. She didn’t even stop to think about the danger in getting in the car with a stranger.”
“Defiant kids are not bad kids. They just need to be taught how to do things differently.”
Villanuevos says she was relieved when Nina was diagnosed with oppositional defiance disorder (ODD), along with ADHD and anxiety, when she was about 9 years old. “I really didn’t know about ODD before, or I thought she wasn’t extreme enough before this,” she says.
ODD is a common issue in children, with more than 200,000 cases diagnosed in the United States each year. Kids with ODD exhibit behavior that is oppositional and openly disobedient, uncooperative or flagrantly disrespectful to authority figures. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology notes that ODD is often seen in tandem with ADHD and sometimes autism. They also point out that in two-thirds of children with ODD, the symptoms will resolve within three years of diagnosis and treatment.
Lexow says it’s common for people to misunderstand the difference between a typical level of misbehavior and one that requires intervention by a psychiatric professional. “If the behavior has gone on for more than six months, if it is impacting the child’s functioning and relationships with adults in his or her life, not counting siblings, I would want to see that child,” she says. Some other red flags to look for are irritability and unwarranted resentfulness toward adults, seeking to deliberately annoy or provoke others, continual refusal to comply in many different subjects, or vindictive or spiteful behavior occurring daily if the child is under 5 years old and weekly if they are older.
“If a parent is seeing this kind of unrelenting defiance with authority figures, I would encourage them to go beyond their school counselor and see a psychiatrist,” she says. “There are very specific criteria and testing we can do to find out what is going on.”
THE DISCIPLINE DILEMMA
Not all parents have the relief of knowing the why behind their child’s defiance.
Chelsea Peters’ 7-year-old son, Daniel, has not been diagnosed with any type of condition that would explain his behavior. “For him, he will pretend he doesn’t hear you or like he doesn’t know the rules when he does,” she says with a sigh. When she tries to correct him the way she does with her two younger children, he turns to self-harm. “He will go to his room and slam his head into things,” the Arlington mom reveals, “so we had to try something else. We started taking away things. That seems to work, but it was hard to know what to do.”
In his book Raising Lions: The Art of Compassionate Discipline, Joe Newman says that parents and teachers need to understand the power struggle between themselves and the spirited child. He makes the case that consequences are a far better teacher than lecturing or “talking it out” in most cases because a consequence appeals to the whole child and affirms that you feel they are capable.
This is a far cry from what modern parents typically hear. With the disciplinary practice of spanking under fire, many parents have reverted to the other extreme, trying to reason with their children about their behavior. Peters says this didn’t work with Daniel; he was not receptive to listening, and it made her feel frustrated and hurt that he wouldn’t hear her out.
Hunter-Franklin has found success with asking questions and seeking to understand her son Hunter’s behavior in tandem with letting him deal with the consequences for his actions. For her, this looks like asking him about the incident and meeting his answer with empathy but still imposing a consequence, such as revoking access to a favorite toy or having him write a letter of apology.
“I think communication is paramount across the board,” she says. “Communicating with Hunter what I expect or what to do after he has handled a situation poorly, and also talking to his teachers to make sure we are all on the same page.”
Lexow says that when a child is testing a boundary, discussion is healthy, but when a child is acting strong-willed without any specific reason, talking it out can often just lead to an argument—a losing battle for the parent.
Villanuevos learned early on that when she was feeling pushed beyond her limit, losing control and yelling did not work with Nina. “When she actively defies me, it can be something like asking her to put the laundry away. I can ask repeatedly, and she won’t do it, or she may do something like dump the contents of the basket on the floor in her closet,” she reveals. “Now we have been at it for two hours trying to get her to put away laundry, and I am exhausted and frustrated, and I will lose my cool. But I am learning that it will just escalate. I have been working on taking deep breaths and not allowing her to pull me in.”
Lexow says that as long as there is no safety risk, ignoring poor behavior and staying extremely calm prevents you from giving the child too much power. “Ignoring them can be effective in the correct setting,” she explains. “An argument takes two people, so if one is not participating, there is no argument to escalate things.”
She adds that giving choices is a great way to help kids work on understanding and self-regulating their behavior.
On his YouTube channel, Newman demonstrates how to offer a child the choice of a short timeout if they will stop the behavior immediately or an extended timeout if the behavior continues. That small choice gives the child a sense of self-control while still allowing the adult the majority of the power. He says this tactic works for kiddos who have been diagnosed with a behavior disorder and kids like Daniel who are just prone to defiant behavior.
“Most kids that are defiant will work better if they are rewarded for making good choices,” Grisham says. At the Bridge Program, offering choices gives the students agency and reinforces positive outcomes. “It teaches them to make good choices and feel good about themselves,” she explains. “When this happens, they will most likely choose to make that good choice again.”
Grisham says she wishes everyone knew what she knows about problematic behavior: that it is fixable. Teaching a strong-willed child to make good choices might be a slow and challenging process, but Grisham stresses that it’s necessary.
“As parents, it’s our job to teach kids how to follow behavior, even when they don’t want to,” she says. “If we don’t correct defiant behavior, then the child thinks they can continue. There is help and assistance when things get hard.”Due to Nina’s severe behavior, Villanuevos doesn’t socialize much with other families out of fear she will be judged. “I don’t want to be ‘that mom,’” she says wistfully, “the one who is arguing with her child in public, the one who is unleashing on her kid in Walmart. Even though I know rationally we all have stuff going on and I shouldn’t feel ashamed, it’s really hard.”
Hunter-Franklin can empathize. “No one is saying on social media that their son [was disciplined] at school every day for the last two months,” she laughs. “As a parent, you can feel embarrassed and think it is a reflection of your parenting, but it’s really not about us. ODD or behavioral problems or just strong-willed kids—these don’t make you a bad parent or a failure. Don’t allow yourself to sit in those labels.”
And even with a rap sheet of bad behavior, an oppositional child does not deserve the label “bad.”
“Defiant kids are not bad kids,” Grisham says. “They just need to be taught how to do things differently.”