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Your Defiant Child’s Behavior: 5 Things You Can—and Can’t—Control as a Parent

By Kim Abraham, LMSW & Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW

What can you do when your child just refuses to get up and go to school? You’ve yelled, nagged, pleaded and even tried bribing her, but she just digs her heels in and says, “Nope, not going, no matter what you do.” Maybe this has never happened to you—or maybe it happens every day. Many parents may read this scenario and immediately respond, “I’d make my kid go!” But without using physical means, how would you do that? If a child outright refuses to comply, other than grabbing her arm and physically forcing her to do get dressed and get on the bus—which no parent wants to do or ever should do, for that matter—what options does a parent have?

In reality, once we let go of trying to control our child’s behavior and choices, we actually gain much more power.

A very common theme in raising a defiant child, or a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, is control. First of all, things usually feel out of control. Your child or teenager is fighting against any attempts made to control him—by you (his parent), teachers or any authority figure.  Yet he appears to have little to no control over his own choices, impulses or behavior. Society demands that you “get that kid under control,” so parents fight even harder to control that child. You use every parenting technique you can think of that is supposed to work. In turn, your child digs in his heels, pushes back and becomes even more reactive, leading him to behave more impulsively. It becomes more about the power struggle than the behavior itself.

Why Do We Fight Our Child for Control?
  • Pressure from Society. Let’s face it, our society puts two competing messages out there. On the one hand, there’s a high value placed on individuality and “standing out from a crowd.” The Robert Frost poem hanging in many of today’s classrooms encourages finding your own way: “…two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Yet on the other hand, when our young people do make choices that aren’t consistent with the norm, there’s often a backlash and pressure to conform.  And when that child or teen refuses, the pressure is put on parents to make the child follow the path others believe is the right one.
  • Fear. As parents we’re often terrified of what will happen if we don’t control our kids. What if she takes that path less traveled and it’s the wrong path? What will happen to my child? Rather than thinking of our child as learning life lessons—the same ones we did—we believe she will surely meet with disaster. We picture our child heading a hundred miles an hour down the wrong road (one that’s a dead end ) and we’re standing in front of her, terrified and trying to save her from herself.
  • To Win the Tug-of-War. Sometimes we find ourselves in a dispute with our child and before we know it, we’re in a full-blown battle of wills that we become determined to win. It’s not something we recognize consciously, but underneath our own actions is the belief that to let go of control is to give in to our child…and that’s not going to happen! We continue to act in effort to gain control over our child’s behavior, and he becomes just as determined to keep that control. Who’s going to win in the end? No one, really, but our child will have the ultimate control over his behavior. Why? Because short of sewing some puppeteer strings on him, he physically has control over his own body.
  • It’s Human Nature. Take a day and pay attention to the idea of control as it relates to yourself and those around you. Listen to conversations. How often do you advise people on courses of action they should take? How frequently do others share their suggestions on what you—or anyone—needs to do? You’ll be surprised. Most of us know an Aunt Edna who just loves to tell people how things should be.  It’s human nature to try and direct things. Often we truly believe we know what’s best for that other person and maybe we do….but maybe we don’t.

Parents often believe it’s our role— our responsibility—to control our children. But the fact of the matter is, unless you use physical force, it’s impossible to control another human being unless they allow you to do so. You can threaten, bribe, reward, beg, guilt and shame that other person into doing what you believe is best. However, the only way to influence another person’s behavior is if they allow you to influence it—whether they’re eight, eighteen or eighty years old.

Giving Up the Need to Control Doesn’t Mean You’re Giving In

In reality, once we let go of trying to control our child’s behavior and choices, we actually gain much more power. Fighting every day with someone whose main purpose is to avoid being controlled will leave you feeling disheartened, exhausted, angry, frustrated, embarrassed and ashamed. Putting energy into what you can control leaves you feeling empowered, confident and stronger. Believe it or not, there’s actually more you can control than can’t—you’ve probably just been trying to control the wrong things!

It’s our job as parents to provide an environment that allows our child to learn lessons that will prepare him for the world, so he can survive—even thrive. Everything we do as parents comes back to this guiding premise.We control providing food, clothing and shelter to our child. We control whether or not we show our child how to cope and deal with conflict adversity and life’s challenges. And we control whether or not we allow him to experience consequences for the choices he makesHowever, whether or not that child chooses to take those life lessons to heart is ultimately up to him.

Identifying What Is In Your Control

5 things you can and can’t control as a parent:

  1. You can control whether or not your child knows what your expectations are: “Johnny, my expectation is that you will handle your anger without physical violence.”
  2. You can control whether or not you’ve given your child opportunities to meet this expectation: “Johnny, if you find you’re getting angry, it’s okay to walk away, go listen to music, talk to your friend on the phone to blow off steam, whatever will help you release some of that anger and we can talk again later.”
  3. You can control whether or not your child knows what the potential consequences will be if he chooses not to meet your expectation: “Johnny, you’re fifteen years old. If you hit me when you’re angry, that’s domestic violence. If it happens again, I will call the police. I would hate to see that happen, so I hope you choose to handle your anger without getting physical.”
  4. You can control your own behavior: When you get angry, you can model for your child how to cope effectively without using physical violence. You can walk away or practice other effective coping skills when you get angry yourself
  5. You can’t control your child’s behavior.  You can’t control whether or not he behaves in a physically aggressive way when he’s angry. Your power does not lie in the arguing, defending and power struggles that tend to go hand-in-hand with attempts to control an ODD child. Instead, your power lies in what you can control—your own behavior. Just as you can’t control your child, he can’t control you either! Some days it may feel like he can—but he can’t.

Easier Said Than Done

We know some people will read this article and think, “Parents should control their children.” It’s tempting to judge parents of ODD children on what they should and shouldn’t do. But until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes, it’s difficult to know the pain and shame that comes from parenting a child who simply will not be controlled. For ODD children, being controlled feels as if they’re drowning. They will fight tooth and nail to keep control, arguing and outright refusing to comply with an authority figure’s directives. We can spend time, as a society, judging that child and talking about how they ought to behave. Or we can accept that our world has always had rebels—those who will take the path less traveled, even if it’s a path filled with bumps and potholes. And we can support the parents of those individuals in their own journey, without blame or shame. We hope this article will help those parents let go of some of the techniques that should work but don’t, and find strength in focusing on what they can control.

While we try to teach our children all about life,
Our children teach us what life is all about.
— Angela Schwindt

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About Kim Abraham, LMSW & Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW

Kimberly Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner are the co-creators of The ODD Lifeline for parents of Oppositional, Defiant kids, and Life Over the Influence, a program that helps families struggling with substance abuse issues. Kimberly Abraham, LMSW, has worked with children and families for more than 25 years. She specializes in working with teens with behavioral disorders, and has also raised a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW, is the mother of four and has been a therapist for 15 years. She works with children and families and has in-depth training in the area of substance abuse. Kim and Marney are also the co-creators of Their first children's book, Daisy: The True Story of an Amazing 3-Legged Chinchilla, teaches the value of embracing differences and was the winner of the 2014 National Indie Excellence Children's Storybook Cover Design Award.

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