In our home, challenging behavior looked like the stubborn, defiant, scowling red face of our 6 year old daughter. It sounded like, "I won't!" in a screeching voice. I felt irritated, frustrated and angry. I had a hot face, fast breathing, tight jaw and shoulders. I'd think, "Really?! Again?!! Why does she have to do this now?!? I'm tired and this is not OK."
Are you feeling like this? Like your son or daughter is defiant...again...and nothing works. And you can't stand it anymore.
Facing challenging behavior is a big, agonizing, unruly topic. Working with moments of disagreement and outright defiance, especially when your child is strong willed, is crucial to peaceful family dynamics so this will be the first in a series of 3 posts to unpack it and offer effective solutions.
My name is Allison Livingston and I am a conflict resolution specialist, mediator, parent of 2 daughters and parent coach. I work with multitudes of parents whose kids are strong willed and do challenging behavior like hitting, not cooperating, yelling back, stonewalling, getting intensely angry, fighting with siblings, breaking and throwing things plus much more.
The parents who come to me all want to know the same 2 things. First, they want to understand why their kid is doing this challenging behavior. Then second, they want to clearly understand what they can do to stop it.
Since I had my own strong willed kids and have studied this for 15 years, I have information that will help. Even better, I have a proven system that works and created exercises, tools, scripts, practices and a community for parents to Thrive with Their Strong Willed Child. There's hope!
First, we need to understand what challenging behavior is and why it happens. That's what we'll focus on here as knowing the problem helps us develop a different lens so we can respond better.
I don't know about you, but when my daughter would yell, refuse, kick the door in, or scream "No, I won't!" I wouldn't respond well. I would get triggered and yell back, punish, get alternately angry and frustrated or hopeless. When she'd do this in public I'd feel embarrassed, mortified. When she'd do something to her little sister, Mama Bear protective energy would rise up and want to dominate her. Then it would get worse as she'd intensely double down or run off feeling unfairly ganged up on.
Here is the range and some examples of challenging behavior so we are all talking about the same thing.
kicking in doors
fighting with siblings
resisting school homework or directions
being uncooperative to get ready
having a hard time transitioning
not wanting to go where you tell them to
throwing a tantrum when they don't get what they want
refusing to do chores
Out of the blue or predictable and preventable?
One of the hardest parts is that these challenging behaviors seem to come out of nowhere and with great intensity, often at inconvenient times. The myth is that they are unstoppable except with control and showing them who's in charge.
But is this actually true?
Why does challenging behavior happen?
In my research over the past 15 years, I've studied and lived NonViolent Communication (NVC), explored self care practices to have a 'full tank' of resources, worked with a self awareness tool called the Enneagram and become a certified mediator practicing conflict resolution. From this, I've found there are 4 main contributors to challenging behavior. I'll describe them all briefly then go into more depth on the last one.
How full their tank of resources is. How full mine is.
What they think ABOUT what happened. What I think ABOUT what happened
Their core temperament/nature. My core temperament/nature
How full is their tank? How full is mine?
Challenging behavior happens more frequently when their or our resources tank is low or empty, I'm guessing you've read before, but it bears repeating. Some of the first places to look are: are they tired, over stimulated, hungry, thirsty, in need of comfort/reassurance? Next, but more often overlooked, are you tired, over stimulated, hungry, thirsty, in need of comfort/reassurance?
All kids do challenging behavior at one time or another. In fact, challenging behavior is essential; it conveys strong emotion to communicate their needs/values. Examples of needs/values are: being seen, acceptance, support, power in their world, ease, belonging, understanding and many more. It is a crucial pointer to what matters, what’s important.
Challenging behavior is actually an ask for support. They are asking for permission to feel and be heard about something important to them. It just comes disguised as yelling, hitting, lying, non-cooperation, spitting, resisting, sneaking, and fighting which is super triggering.
Until we know the secret, it's almost impossible to unhook from this old pattern of triggering each other. More on this later.
What am I thinking and how attached am I to being right, to my story? How attached is my child to theirs?
This is a huge topic, but the main thing you need to know as a parent is that our thoughts are the main source of conflict. This may surprise you, as it did me, but the source of conflict isn't actually the behavior nor emotions themselves, but what I think about them. The meaning I assign, the story I tell myself.
kids (and all humans) are born with different temperaments. If you have more than one child, you know how different they are, even from the same parents growing up in the same home. They are often different from our own personality type as well which can make it hard for us to understand them until we learn more about the 9 core types.
One of the temperaments the Enneagram describes is called 'The Challenger'. My observation and experience from my own two children, their friends and my coaching + workshop participants, is that the most intense and frequent challenging behavior is with kids born with this strong willed, challenger personality type, which my coaching practice focuses on.
I want to be clear though, challenging interactions are not the 'fault' of a child with a strong willed nature. It is how we interact based also on the parent's temperament and self awareness of these 4 factors. Also, most agree that it is not wise to 'type' children as they are evolving and for accuracy, most suggest letting kids type themselves after the age of 13 or older.
Keep in mind too that a strong willed nature is also a great strength as shown by many great leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Barbara Walters, Winston Churchill, Susan Sarandon, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Aretha Franklin.
Finally, not all challenging interactions are due to children with challenger natures, these just seem to resist traditional parenting dynamics more consistently, but other types do as well.
The good news is that there are clear steps parents can take to move from clashing and surviving to thriving.
Summarizing this section
Children's temperaments are different, their emotional intelligence, awareness of their thoughts, and how full their tank of resources fluctuates as well. The demands that come at them change too, meaning challenging behavior will come and go. This is one of the keys I observed: my child's behavior is not always challenging. In fact, it's predictable and over time, with clear steps, their becoming triggered is preventable.
Let's clear up two other myths:
"Kids are manipulative. They are doing it on purpose, to me. Kids try to drive parents crazy to get their way."
In fact, doing challenging behavior is NOT because they are inherently manipulative, limit testing, willful, coercive nor unmotivated. Blaming the kids is not the answer. Believing this traditional parenting thought that, "all kids should be well behaved" and this lens of them only makes it worse.
"Bad behavior is the parent's fault. They should be more strict and keep their kids under control."
Hard interactions are also NOT because we as parents are not good enough, permissive, inconsistent, passive, too nice or not strict and firm enough. Blaming the parent is also not the answer. The research I've done shows this is the current wisdom of what's wrong with unruly, out of line kids: it's the parents fault. This lens also just makes a hard situation worse. It adds judgement and shame on top of pain, frustration and embarrassment .
So why do some kids seem to consistently lead with challenging behavior?
As I mentioned above, it is a combination of all 4 factors, but since the concept of nature is new to many, I'll go into more depth. A child who is born with a Challenger temperament clashes with the traditional parenting of unilateral control. Dr. Ross Greene of The Explosive Child and the Collaborative Proactive Solution method, describes this well. "But if we solve (power struggles) unilaterally, through imposition of adult will (referred to in the model as “Plan A”), then we’ll only increase the likelihood of challenging episodes and we won’t solve any problems durably."
The Challenger temperament or core personality type
The Challenger personality types hate to be controlled or told what to do. So you can see why traditional parenting methods that rely on telling, being firmly in charge, controlling, and punishing are like pouring gasoline into an explosive fire. It sets the stage to bring out the worst in the child with this temperament.
You might find it works great on the other children in the family, especially those who are pleasers and more compliant, but it triggers (which is another word for threatens), the one with the Challenger mindset. When we approach these kids with this controlling mindset they don't feel understood and it is like waving a red flag in front of a bull.
All kids can put on this Challenger mindset at various times when their tank is empty and they have unmet needs. Ones born with a Challenger nat will have a harder time taking it off at all.
The lens you see your child through makes all the difference
I hope you're starting to see that it can make a huge difference when we understand that our unique, spirited, defiant, amazing child, is one who has a strong willed nature and therefore, often does challenging behavior to get their needs met. Not that they are mean or willful or doing anything to us. In fact, they lack the skills to respond any other way. This lens of them is crucial to solving this puzzle. Understanding how we approach this child, the labels we use and the lens we see them through is a key.
"If these kids could do better, they would do better."
~Ross Greene, Author of the Explosive Child
The goal is to learn how to move from surviving to thriving.
Next post, we’ll discuss more why these kids lead with challenging behavior and why traditional parenting often (unintentionally) makes it worse. We’ll also get into the steps towards solutions.
If your family is struggling right now, contact me to set up a free Insight Call. You can tell me about your hard family dynamic and I'll give you one small step to start using immediately that works like magic.
In addition, I want you to know you aren't alone. We have a community of like-minded parents all working with strong willed kids called The Strong Willed Child Parenting Support Community. If you'd like support, tools and ideas, we welcome you. You don't have to do this alone and it doesn't have to be so hard.