Families often seek help because they are concerned about their children’s behaviors. As psychologists, we are frequently asked questions such as:
- What should I do when my child is disruptive in his/her classroom?
- Why does my child have trouble sharing?
- How can I get my child to stop screaming at a restaurant?
In the above situations, these behaviors are often presumed to be “oppositional” or “defiant” in nature, and as a result, the children are described using these terms. In fact, many parents say that doctors or teachers have mentioned the possibility of Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), and they ask if this diagnosis applies to their child’s behavior. It is common for adults to feel frustrated when a child does not comply with their requests, or when efforts to change a child’s behavior seem unsuccessful: “I’ve tried yelling, taking away toys, using rewards, even crying… Why don’t they listen?! Why don’t they follow the rules?!”
These seemingly desperate questions are actually a large part of the solution. The moment we really begin to examine why the behavior might be happening, we become curious about a child’s experiences instead of acting punitive or blaming.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that uncooperative behavior is often an outward display of internal distress. In her blog, psychologist Mona Delahooke, Ph.D., urges us to pay attention to a child’s emotional and physiological experiences when they display defiant behaviors:
“We need to become investigators as to the range of individual differences that contribute to children’s emotional vulnerability, and help them construct new meanings from the sensations they experience leading to the challenging behaviors.”
This opens the door to so many possibilities to explore! So, let’s become investigators…the behavior is probably not happening because your child gets pleasure out of annoying you or because “they just don’t want to follow the rules.” There are probably several other whys if we look a little closer.
A common cause of internal distress is an overabundance of sensory input. Think about commuting home from work on a crowded train in the summer – you’re hot, tired, hungry, and likely have a low tolerance for people who are standing close to you (sounds, smells of others will make many folks feel annoyed or even outright angry at their fellow commuters). Most adults, thanks to their brain having fully developed its prefrontal cortex, are able to inhibit angry or aggressive impulses in this situation. But children, especially those with neurodevelopmental delays, are not as well equipped to handle these environmental stressors, as they are likely to be overly sensitive to such stimuli. Sharon Heller, Ph.D., writes eloquently about this sensory imbalance in her book, Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight. While some children seem over-reactive to sensory input, there are also those for whom the opposite is true –those who need a higher amount of movement in order to stay regulated. These “under-reactive” children frequently get out of their chairs, run down hallways, or may look to “jump” from the second or third step at the bottom of a staircase. Whether a child shows more over- or under- reactivity, their unmet sensory needs can lead to dysregulation, which often in turn leads to “not following the rules.”
Behaviors of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are often interpreted as being “oppositional” or “defiant” in nature rather than understood from the perspective of their developmental and individual differences. For example, disruptions to normal routines can be triggering for children with ASD. When things don’t go as planned or expected in the environment, this can lead to increased anxiety, which often presents as irritability or as a full-on meltdown. Further, one of the hallmark symptoms of ASD is difficulty reading social cues. That means a child can’t always tell when their behavior is bothering someone else. Children with ASD typically need more help tuning into the social world around them, and they can miss the nuances that their peers pick up on. They are not annoying others just for their own entertainment or to receive attention, as is often presumed in the case of diagnoses of ODD.
Social communication difficulties play a large role in “defiant” behavior as well. A child with ASD or with a language delay may not have the expressive vocabulary needed to properly convey their feelings. Thus, hiding under a desk or trying to leave the room may be the best way a child knows how to say “I don’t understand what you’re asking me to do” or “I need to take a break.” For example, I recently evaluated a child who repeatedly said, “No blocks!” when I presented him with a task. On the surface, this phrase sounds oppositional, but given his very limited expressive language level (primarily consisted of requests and refusals), he was unable to explain what he needed (e.g., adults decreasing their level of language; a movement break) or what he was feeling (e.g., overwhelmed; distracted).
So, while we often may find ourselves asking, “Why isn’t this child following directions?” it is best to consider what the child’s needs are in that moment. A child’s behavior is an attempt to communicate something, and we as the adults have the responsibility to uncover what our children are trying to say. The times when parents ask, “Why isn’t my child listening?” are crucial opportunities for attunement and co-regulation. Children feel just as frustrated as adults if their needs are unmet or if demands are too high. They may be asking the very same thing, “Why aren’t (the adults) listening to me?” Understanding a child’s behavior from this perspective, and learning how to meet them where they are at developmentally, can help caregivers and providers to respond in an appropriate, strength-based manner that promotes a child’s development.
Let’s all continue to be investigators and strive to understand children’s internal experiences and developmental differences to promote their development!