Isaac Garfield MSS, LCSW - Psychotherapy, Groups, & Coaching

Why won't they listen? Understanding your child's behavior.

Understand your child’s behavior.
Children aren’t naturally lazy, uncooperative, or manipulative. However, they may develop these behaviors as a way to cope with their own unresolved feelings, such as embarrassment, fear, anger or frustration.  For example, if a new sibling has been born and the child is upset and has not been able to fully express their feelings, they may become mildly depressed, more fatigued and thus less likely to want to do chores or follow through on daily tasks that were once easy to complete. 
Behavior that looks defiant may also be unintentional.  The child may have an undiagnosed or misunderstood issue with information processing or may simply be misinterpreting the language, directions, and meaning of what their parent is saying.

How do I determine the cause of the defiance?
This can be very confusing for parents.  Not knowing why your child is being defiant can elicit feelings of frustration, anger, rage and resignation.  Many parents have a tendency to want to extinguish their children’s negative feelings: when a child is upset, angry, or confused, it may bring up similar uncomfortable feelings in their parent.  These are some of the complex aspects of listening to our children. During these times of exploring the underlying meaning of a child’s defiance, it’s important to have support from others like partners, friends, or a therapist who can validate your feelings and remind you not to act out or give up.

Start by listening.
Start by taking the simplest approach to diagnosing your child’s defiance – listen to your child.  Sometimes all it takes is for a child’s underlying feelings of frustration, sadness, or insecurity to be heard. When a child feels heard by a parent this may meet their underlying need to feel secure, appreciated and connected. 

How do I listen to my child?
The art of listening to the feelings underlying defiance is a simple yet difficult task. Listening is simple in that it is just being open to hearing the challenging thoughts, feelings and experiences your child is having.  It is difficult because many parents are upset when their child is being defiant. Try to change your perspective on their defiance from it being a sign of disrespect to it being a sign of a deeper issue that they are having, such as an inability to manage some of their own upsetting feelings.  Listening to a child’s feelings can also be challenging when a child does not understand or is unable to verbalize why they are feeling upset.  This is of course the case for children who are not verbal or who still have a limited vocabulary. It is also challenging to listen to children when their feelings are about you or are a result of longer or ongoing causes of discomfort, such as being bullied at school.  

For children who are verbal, set aside a few minutes when you are calm and the issue of defiance has passed. Sit with your child and ask them about how they have been doing and how they have been feeling.  Listen with the intention of fully supporting their expression of whatever thoughts and feelings they are having, negative or positive.  If a child is younger and does not have the insight or ability to verbalize their feelings, you may need to do this through play.  Try sitting with them while they are playing with dolls or action figures and watch what they are doing using the same listening technique; play is their way of expressing their underlying feelings.

Start by trying an exercise of listening to your child for 5 to 10 minutes a day. Increase the length of time as you develop your stamina and patience.  Getting the support of a psychotherapist who is experienced working with children and families may be helpful initially to guide you through this process and to help you determine whether there are any additional approaches that may be necessary to address the child’s defiance.

The Magic of listening: a child becomes cooperative.
Often, a seemingly magical experience happens when a child feels listened to. Within several months of helping parents to listen to their children, I have seen remarkable changes in a child’s behavior -- from refusing to do school work and complete chores, to taking the initiative and volunteering to help out around the house. Children have a deep need to feel secure, appreciated, and connected.  By truly listening to them, we fulfill many of these needs.  This drastic change in behavior is a result of their getting their needs truly met.

What if listening to my child doesn’t change their behavior?
It is unrealistic to think that listening to your child one time will make a difference.  They need to feel that this experience is long lasting, and that this deeper need will continue to be met.  There are certain cases, however, that require a different approach.  Sometimes more structure and consequences, preferably positive reinforcement, may be required to address their defiance.  Other times, children may need psychological testing to diagnose learning and processing issues that may require alternative and modified approaches to parenting.


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