When parents come to Dr. Jacob Boney, owner and clinical director of Scottsdale Pediatric Behavioral Services, one of the issues they are often concerned about is the level of defiance displayed by their child, as well as the use of foul language.
“Dr. Jacob, my kid is incredibly defiant and disrespectful and uses just awful language. Calls me names and even threatens me. What should I do in that moment?”
Defiance and the use of foul, inappropriate language can start at a very early age. Even children as young as age 2 can engage in this sort of behavior. If not checked, this will continue into and beyond adolescence.
Some ideas and suggestions that are used by Dr. Boney and other professional behaviorists include:
- Parents have to model the good behavior they expect from their children. When the adults in the household, especially the parents, get confrontational or use strong language with children, each other or anyone within the hearing range of the child, that behavior will be modeled. So, the number one, most important suggestion is to eliminate any use of foul language and minimize, as much as possible, tense arguments and confrontations in the home or anywhere near the child.
- Determine the function of the behavior. Defiance is socially mediated, meaning that it requires the interaction with another person and is usually triggered by either the need for attention or for escape. Acting-out can force parents to pay attention and try to calm or correct the child, but it can also cause those around the child to go away. It’s important to recognize which outcome the child usually gets as the result of their defiant behavior and reinforce more appropriate options.
- Give the child the least amount of attention during the defiant moment as possible. Do not feed into it or engage with the child. Do not ignore the child: ignore the behavior, as much as you can, depending upon the circumstances.
- Prompt the words that you want your child to use in place of the foul or inappropriate language being used. Your child will not always know what are the correct words to use. Be very specific and explicit. Let them know that they will get what they are wanting a lot quicker and easier when using appropriate language and behavior.
- If your child refuses to use an appropriate way to make a request or continues to be defiant, immediately implement a performance-based consequence, rather than one based on time. For example, threatening and following through on taking away something that your child values for a set period of time remove your most powerful tool to motivate your child’s best behavior. Instead, tell the child that access to something important, like a phone or electronic device, will be lost until they can show you appropriate behavior for an hour or some other period of time. Flip the roles from you being the taker to the child being the earner. It is important to remember to always give the child the chance to earn what they want by giving you what you want. This also makes the relationship between parent and child much less aversive.
- Make sure that access to highly preferred items or privileges is tightly controlled by the parent. Even less highly valued items should not come with unlimited access. Children should not have their “own” toys or games or other items that they can use whenever they want. Access to everything, and especially those they value the most, needs to go through the parent and that access must be earned. Otherwise, you are giving away your most powerful tools for shaping good behavior. Minimize the need to take things away. If you are constantly taking items or privileges away, then that usually indicates that your child has too much-unearned access. The way for the child to get access to the things they value most is by giving you the behavior that you want. Obviously, that includes respectful, non-defiant behavior and appropriate use of words.
- Make sure you praise appropriate language and compliance with directions. Notice it and make a big deal about it. Children need to know that it is important and, especially, that it is important to you.
- Completely alter the ratio of positive and negative interactions. At a minimum, 60 – 70 percent of interactions between parent and child need to be about something enjoyable, positive or a shared interest. At worst, it should be something neutral. Without doing this, parents will never be able to get the quality of behavior that they want from their child. Some effective ways to accomplish this are:
- Set fewer and simpler rules
- Reduce frequency of prompting and nagging
- Increase positive communications as much as possible — when in doubt, be quiet and listen
- Spend time doing something shared
For extremely defiant or disrespectful children, Dr. Boney recommends a “day-by-day” system. When there is a history of losing privileges for extended periods of time, some children get into believing “I can’t win”, “the world’s against me” and decide to make everyone else as miserable as they are. Make every day a new day for them by only imposing consequences or restrictions for one day. This gives them the opportunity, every day, to get what they want by doing the behavior that earns them the privileges they want.
Utilizing evidence-based practices and the scientific principles of Applied Behavior Analysis, the Scottsdale Pediatric Behavioral Services team provides assessment, treatment, and consultation for a wide range of behavioral issues. We work with a variety of children, families, schools, hospitals, mental health agencies, and local community organizations to provide these services. If you have any questions about how to deal with defiance or disrespectful behavior or would like more information about any of the services offered by our team, please feel free to contact us by phone at 480.410.4040, email us at [email protected], or click here for our convenient online form.