Q: “My Child Defies Me Because She Knows I’ll Give In. How Do I Break the Cycle?”
“It will take time to change a dynamic that has been long reinforced. Be prepared to see an uptick in defiant behaviors from your child as you work toward change. In my field, we call that an ‘extinction burst,’ or the principle of ‘it will get worse before it gets better.’ Worsening behavior, in this case, actually means that your new strategies are working. You’ll just have to weather the storm to see the new dawn.”
Q: “My child actively resists everything I ask her to do. I end up yelling and threatening her when she doesn’t obey, and ultimately I often allow her to do what she wants to do because I reach a point of exhaustion. She seems to know how to get to me, and I’m at my wits’ end. How do I address her defiance?”
From my perspective as a clinical psychologist who studies reward and punishment responses in children with ADHD, you are right to recognize a toxic dynamic at work here.
Even if it’s not deliberate, your child’s actions are reinforced every time you stand firm and then step aside to allow her to defy you. (To be clear, I recognize that this is an incredibly frustrating situation.) Your daughter remains oppositional because she has learned that defiant behavior gets her what she wants.
[Free Download: The 15-Day Fix to Stop Defiant Behavior]
Your own actions in those moments are also reinforced, though in a different way. You have learned that stepping away results in the removal of an aversive stimulus — your daughter’s defiant behaviors. It’s how you’ve learned to cope with the stress caused by your child’s defiance.
In short, there are many things to unpack here. It’s clear that behaviors on both sides perpetuate this cycle, and unlearning these behaviors is required to bring about change.
If your daughter’s behaviors cause lots of stress and conflict at home, it may be best to seek help from a psychologist or other health provider who is skilled in behavioral parent training for ADHD. They will help you understand how to encourage desired behaviors in your child, and the factors that intentionally and unintentionally influence behavior.
It will take time to change a dynamic that has been long reinforced. Be prepared to see an uptick in defiant behaviors from your child as you work toward change. In my field, we call that an “extinction burst,” or the principle of “it will get worse before it gets better.” Worsening behavior, in this case, actually means that your new strategies are working. You’ll just have to weather the storm to see the new dawn.
“My Kids Don’t Listen to Me:” Next Steps
- Free Download: What You Need to Know About Parent Training Programs
- Q&A: “What Rewards Will Motivate Good Behavior from My Child?”
- Self-Test: Could Your Child Have Oppositional Defiant Disorder?
The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude ADHD Experts webinar titled, “The Power of Positive Reinforcement: Why Rewards Trump Punishments for Students with ADHD” [Video Replay & Podcast #420],” with Gail Tripp, Ph.D., which was broadcast on September 8, 2022.
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