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How to Parent Overt Disobedience

Kids who outright refuse to obey can be a challenge to deal with. Here we explore why kids overtly disobey and how parents can effectively respond.

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My last post addressed passive disobedience – when you ask your child to do something and they say, “Okay Mom,” but don’t do it. Here we will explore the more “button-pushing” form of disobedience: overt disobedience.

What overt disobedience looks like

An exchange with child who practices overt disobedience will go something like this:

Mom: Please put your bike away and come in for dinner.

Child: NO!! You can’t make me!

Overt disobedience may ruffle your feathers more than passive disobedience, but they are qualitatively the same response to an instruction. But how you respond will need to be different. Here are some tips on why kids might respond this way and how you can effectively address overt disobedience.

Why kids overtly disobey

1) They lack impulse control

If your child is engaged in an activity that is highly pleasurable and you are ask them to do something they do not want to do, an impulsive child may just blurt out something like, “No! I don’t want to!” They lack the ability to engage that part of their brain that would put the brakes on such an outburst.

2) They are focused on the here and now

Transitions can be hard for some kids, particularly kids who live in the moment. They are not thinking about what comes next in their day. They are simply enjoying what they are doing to the fullest and a disruption to that can bring on an outburst of opposition.

3) They feel they have no voice

Kids who overtly disobey may feel that their opinions, thoughts and feelings don’t get any “air time” with their parents unless it is an extreme reaction. Children who feel they have no voice either become withdrawn (What’s the use, no one listens to me) or they become resistant to being controlled (If they won’t listen to me, I’ll show them!).

4) They have controlling tendencies

I listed this last because it is often the reason we jump to first – we want to understand our children’s motivation for misbehavior but it’s important that we do not discount other possible issues at hand before determining they are “just controlling.” Some children have an innate desire to control. This can be an undeveloped leadership skill. You can learn more about controlling children here.

How to respond to overt disobedience

1) Give them an opportunity for a do-over

If your child is impulsive and the “No! I won’t!” response slipped out before he had a chance to check his words at the door, it’s important to give him another shot. You can say something like, “Uh-oh. That wasn’t respectful. Let’s try that again.” You can even take a few steps back to demonstrate that you are rewinding the tape and then approach him again and repeat the instruction exactly as you did before. For some kids this will be enough.

2) Join them first

Kids who are engrossed in their activity will need you to enter into it with them for a bit to help show them the way out. For example, if your child is playing with Legos and you need them to wash up for dinner, you can sit down next to them and say, “Wow, you are working hard on that tower!” You can then ask what they plan to do next with their creation. At this point you can say, “I would love to see that. Right now it’s time for dinner. Do you need any help remembering where you left off so you can finish after?” Taking these few minutes may seem like extra work. It is. But if your child struggles with transitions, you are going to spend extra time with him anyway. This way, it’s not conflictual time, but collaborative time. A much better investment in your relationship.

For kids that have a hard time with transitions, it can also be a good idea to give them a 5 minute warning prior to the transition. You can say something like, “Get ready to put that aside. Dinner is in 5 minutes.” You still may have to work through the joining steps outlined above, but this warning can help prime the pump for a transition from something pleasurable to something less pleasurable.

3) Give them a voice

Families operate best when there are clear but permeable boundaries. You can read more about that here. Kids need to know that their parents are in charge, will keep them safe and help them learn and grow. But they also need parents who are willing to listen and hear what they have to say. Some families hold weekly family meetings to discuss issues that pop up during the week. It provides kids with a forum to voice their concerns and be heard. If your children can write, it can be helpful to have a notebook where family members can log their concerns and complaints as the week goes on. You can say something like, “That sounds important to you. Make a note in the family meeting notebook and we will discuss it on Friday night after dinner.” Then be sure to have that discussion.

4) Give them choices

If your child refuses to obey instructions due to issues with power and control, you can circumvent this to some degree with choices. You can say, “Dinner is ready. Would you like to come in now or take one more lap around the yard?” Some kids may say not to both options. If possible, you can simply choose for them. However, in this example, that would not work without physically wrestling your child off of the bike, which is neither safe nor healthy for your relationship.

In this particular situation, you have some options:

1) Figure out what’s underneath. You can get curious and ask, “Are you not hungry right now?” If your child eats a lot of snacks, they may not be sufficiently hungry for dinner. If family meals are important to you, you can tell him that he doesn’t need to eat, but he needs to come and sit at the table. This gives him some control over the situation.

2) Lay out a tagged consequence. You may need to simply let the consequence be their teacher. “By not coming in, you will be using up your bike riding time for tomorrow. If you are washed up and seated at the table in 5 minutes, you can enjoy your bike tomorrow. If not, it will spend tomorrow in the shed. It’s up to you, you pick.” This allows your child choice, creates a logical consequence and preserves your relationship. It’s important that you do not hoover or have an investment in one choice over another. You simply place the decision in his hands and follow through.

5) Calm yourself

A child who overtly disobeys can create a strong reaction in his parents. It’s important to pause, breathe and ground. Close your eyes, squeeze your fists, take a deep breath, rise up on your tiptoes and then drop your heels. This calming technique is quick and effective. It can interrupt the innate reaction that can bubble up out of us when we are disobeyed.

Try to remind yourself that this is an opportunity not an emergency. It’s an opportunity to train your child with important life skills on how to handle doing things that he doesn’t want to do.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for treatment from a qualified mental health professional. Cornerstones for Parents is not liable for any advice, tips, techniques, and recommendations the reader chooses to implement.

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About Laura

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura is a licensed clinical social worker who offers individual therapy to women and moms in Connecticut. She is the author of More Than a Conqueror, A Christian Kid's Guide to Winning the War on Worry. Cornerstones for Parents is the place she combines some of the things she is most passionate about: God's word, parenting and mental health.

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