Diagnosing Behavior Problems in Younger Defiant Children

The best way to diagnose a behavioral problem in a young defiant child (ages 3 to 6) is by consistent observation over several weeks – or even months. By observing your defiant youngster over a lengthy period of time, it becomes easier to identify patterns of behavior, and therefore discern potential triggers for problem behaviors.

Observing and recording your youngster's problematic behavior can provide clues about his or her strengths and weaknesses, and help you gain valuable information about how your youngster thinks, feels, learns and reacts in a variety of situations and environments. 

Here’s how to conduct an investigation:
  1. Develop some investigation questions. What are you trying to discover about your youngster? Write down some questions that you hope to answer through observation (e.g., "Why does my son get very angry, agitated, and sometimes physically aggressive when playing board games with his siblings?").
  2. Divide a piece of paper into 3 sections to create a note sheet. Label the first column "Time," the second "Observation," and the third "Comments."
  3. Find a spot to sit in proximity to your youngster. Get close enough so you can hear what he's saying, but not so close that you interfere with the natural course of events.
  4. Note the time that you are observing your youngster in the Time column.
  5. Write a few sentences about the context of the situation in the Observation column. What is he saying and/or doing? Capture as much detail as possible. Write in note form and abbreviations in order to record quickly as the action happens. Also, write in present tense.
  6. Write down any comments you have about what is happening in the Comments column. If, for example, you recorded that your youngster keeps yelling at his sister every time she appears to be winning, you could comment that “my son seems very concerned that he is going to lose.” You can add comments after you have recorded all observations.
  7. After you have finished recording and commenting, try to find clues in your notes along the following 5 areas: (a) your youngster’s physical presence, (b) his disposition and temperament, (c) his connections with siblings, (d) his interests and preferences, and (e) his modes of thinking and learning.
  8. Next, assign a color to each category and color-code your notes with colored pencils to underline different words and/or phrases associated with each area.
  9. Then split all your color-coded evidence into the 5 areas and look for patterns of behavior. For example, review all your red underlined sections and see if you notice a repeated behavior (e.g., frequent yelling) that might suggest a certain habit (e.g., quick temper).
  10. Lastly, organize your notes and formulate answers to your investigation questions. You may have to do several observations to gather enough data to analyze. One conclusion could be: "My son tends to act-out verbally and physically during board games because he fears losing. He needs to learn how to be a graceful loser."

 ==> My Out-of-Control Child: Help for Parents with Oppositional Defiant Children

Armed with this information, you can begin to take the steps necessary in helping your defiant child to be a graceful loser. For example:
  • Choose an activity that requires cooperation as well as competition (e.g., freeze tag, red rover, duck duck goose, etc.).
  • If your youngster fails at something, emphasize those aspects of the endeavor in which he is getting better. Keep track of improvement and personal bests (e.g., farthest throw, most hits in a row, etc.) – not final scores.
  • If your youngster loses a game, quickly offer to play again and remind him that the winner has to say "Good game" to the loser.
  • Once in a while, before you play a game, agree on a prize for the loser (e.g., picking the dessert that evening).
  • Play games of chance (e.g., war) and explain that winning sometimes depends on luck, not on skill.
  • Play games that last forever (e.g., Monopoly) in which your youngster and his siblings will run out of steam before anybody wins or loses. 

Issuing Consequences 101: Basics for Parents of Defiant Teens

"Discipline” means to teach, and positive discipline helps teens learn to effectively solve problems and manage conflicts. A parent who is angry with the child should calm down before deciding a consequence, and if applicable, should consult with the other parent before doing so. Parents should regularly discuss the effectiveness of consequences for the specific child, and should always support each other in the positive discipline process of their defiant teens.
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Active Listening: Best Parenting Practices for Raising Defiant Teens

Some behaviors of defiant teenagers are bids for attention, while others are expressions of frustration at not feeling understood. Moms and dads will be able to reduce problem behaviors when the adolescent feels genuinely cared about, understood, and paid attention to. The best way to accomplish this is through “active listening” – a simple, yet highly under-rated parenting strategy.

Active listening is hard work, and takes energy and practice. This is why most parents don’t do it (a BIG parenting mistake!). It can’t be done when thinking about - or attending to - other things, or when distractions occur. Active listening doesn’t have to last a long time, but attention must be focused completely on the adolescent, and the message must be communicated back to the adolescent in the parent’s own words in a way that lets the adolescent know he or she was really heard. Tone of voice, respect for personal space, facial expressions, eye contact, choices of words, and body language are all important in communicating the desired message. It may take a few attempts to really understand the message, but that is O.K. (as long as it is finally understood accurately).

To know how to really listen to your child, think about how you would want to be listened to. Greater communication brings greater parent-child bonding. Moms and dads listening to their teenagers helps build their self-esteem. It makes them feel worthy, appreciated, interesting and respected. When we as parents really listen to our children, we foster this skill in them by acting as a model for positive and effective communication.

While the ideas around active listening are largely intuitive, it might actually take some practice to develop (or re-develop) the skill. Here’s what good listeners know – and what you as a parent of a defiant teenager should know too:

1. Active listening is a model for respect and understanding. You are gaining information and perspective. You add nothing by attacking your adolescent or otherwise putting him or her down. So treat your child in a way that you think he or she would want to be treated. Be candid, open, and honest in your response. Also, assert your opinions respectfully.

2. As you work on developing your listening skills, you may feel a bit panicky when there is a natural pause in the parent-child conversation. What should you say next? Will you make a bad problem worse by responding in a certain way? Learn to settle into the silence, and use it to better understand your child’s point of view.

3. Avoid letting your adolescent know how you handled a similar situation. Unless he or she specifically asks for advice, assume your teen just needs to talk it out.

4. Be deliberate with your listening and remind yourself frequently that your goal is to truly hear what your teenager is saying – even if he or she is angry at the time. Set aside all other thoughts and behaviors and concentrate on the message. Ask questions, reflect and paraphrase to ensure you understand the message. If you don't, then you'll find that what your adolescent actually says - and what you hear - are two different things.

==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

5. Even if your adolescent is launching a complaint against you, wait until he or she finishes before you defend yourself. Your adolescent will feel as though his or her point had been made. He or she won’t feel the need to repeat it, and you’ll know the whole argument before you respond.

6. Face your adolescent. Sit up straight or lean forward slightly to show your attentiveness through body language.

7. Remember that non-verbal communication also "speaks" loudly too: (a) notice your adolescent's body language; (b) avoid being distracted by environmental factors (e.g., side conversations); (c) don't mentally prepare a rebuttal; (d) look at your adolescent directly; and (e) put aside distracting thoughts.

8. If you find yourself responding emotionally to what your adolescent said, say so, and ask for more information (e.g., "I may not understand you correctly, and I find myself taking what you said personally. What I thought you just said is ________. Is that what you meant?").

9. Interrupting will make a bad problem worse. It frustrates your adolescent and limits full understanding of the message. So don't interrupt with counter arguments, and allow your adolescent to finish each point before asking questions (notice I said “asking questions” instead of defending yourself).

10. Minimize external distractions. Turn off the TV. Put down your book or magazine, and ask your adolescent to do the same.

11. Minimize internal distractions. If your own thoughts keep horning in, simply let them go and continue to re-focus your attention on your adolescent’ message (similar to what you would do during meditation).

12. Our personal filters, assumptions, judgments and beliefs often distort what we hear. As a parent, your mission is to truly understand what your child is trying to convey. This may require you to reflect what is being said and ask questions: (a) ask questions to clarify certain points (e.g., "What do you mean when you say ___?"); (b) reflect what has been said by paraphrasing (e.g., "What I'm hearing is ___.); and (c) summarize your adolescent's comments periodically.

13. Try not to think about what you are going to say next. The conversation will follow a logical flow after your adolescent makes his or her point.

14. Use your own body language and gestures to convey your attention: (a) encourage your adolescent to continue talking by using your small verbal comments (e.g., “yes” and “I see”); (b) nod occasionally; (c) note your posture and make sure it is open and inviting; and (d) smile and use other facial expressions.

15. Wait until your adolescent is finished before deciding that you disagree. Try not to make assumptions about what he or she is thinking. Research shows that, on average, we can hear four times faster than we can talk, so we have the ability to sort ideas as they come in – and be ready for more.

Active listening is a crucial technique to parenting a defiant teen. Active listening involves focusing on the speaker. Active listening manifests itself by asking good questions, paraphrasing what the speaker has said, and showing empathy. Once your teen sees that you understand what he or she is trying to say, your teen will most likely show some interest in what YOU have to say (which is the all-important end-point that you are trying to get to).


==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

The Best Intervention for Defiant Behavior

Researchers have known for a long time that the use of positive reinforcement for appropriate behaviors is a key element in effective interventions for defiant behavior in kids and teens. If the majority of parent-child interactions are focused around correcting misbehavior, a cycle of negative interactions is created where the youngster expects attention after misbehaving.

On the other hand, positive reinforcement not only builds a youngster's self-esteem, but also serves to strengthen the parent-child bond. To accomplish this, positive reinforcement should occur immediately after the youngster has exhibited an appropriate behavior.

There are many different types of reinforcers that can be used to increase desired behaviors, but the type of reinforcer used depends on the child’s personality, age, and the particular circumstance (e.g., while tokens might be very effective reinforcement for a 6-year-old child, they are not going to have the same effect with a teenager):
  • Token reinforcers are points or tokens that are awarded for performing certain actions. These tokens can then be exchanged for something of value.
  • Tangible reinforcers involve the presentation of an actual, physical reward (e.g., candy, treats, toys, money, games, etc.). While these types of rewards can be powerfully motivating, they should be used sparingly and with caution.
  • Social reinforcers involve expressing approval of a behavior (e.g., the parent saying or writing "good job" or "excellent work").
  • Natural reinforcers are those that occur directly as a result of the behavior (e.g., a child studies hard, pays attention in class, and does his homework, then as a result, he gets excellent grades).

When used correctly, positive reinforcement can be very effective – especially when it occurs immediately after the desired behavior. The shorter the amount of time between a desired behavior and positive reinforcement, the stronger the connection will be. If a long period of time elapses between the behavior and the reinforcement, the weaker the connection will be. It also becomes more likely that intervening misbehavior might accidentally be reinforced.

The following tend to be the best positive reinforcers for defiant children in the classroom:
  • Activity reinforcers are special activities awarded to a child who exhibits exceptional behavior. An example of activity reinforcement is extra time in a play area, or special time set aside for a computer game. Activities can take many forms to suit the dynamic of the classroom environment. These reinforcers are also referred to as natural reinforcers because the activities are tasks that are enjoyable and come naturally to a child, not an assignment.
  • Social reinforcement comes from the teacher and other children. Offering a smile or simple encouragement such as "good job" are both examples of social reinforcement. Social reinforcement is most effective when the action being praised is clearly communicated.
  • Tangibles are gifts given to children as rewards for good behavior. The most effective tangible reinforcements are award certificates and letters brought home commending a child's progress. Tangibles also take the form of classroom items (e.g., colorful folders, pens, pencils, etc). However, I would caution against using this method of reinforcement on a regular basis since it may cause other children to be envious.
  • Token reinforcement is a form of positive reinforcement that awards a child with points or tokens in exchange for appropriate behavior. Tokens can take the form of gold stars or extra points on a grade (e.g., a gold star given to a child who listened well to instructions on a task, extra points to a child who has shown great improvement, etc.).

Other approaches to the treatment of defiant behavior in children include cognitive behavioral therapy, family therapy, individual psychotherapy, parent training programs, social skills training, and anger management programs. For defiant teenagers, vocational training, cognitive interventions, and academic tutoring have shown to be effective.

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