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My Child is Defiant and Disrespectful


Understanding Oppositional Defiant Behaviour


I’m often asked for tips on managing a child who is defiant and disrespectful. These concerns usually centre on the child being defiant and disrespectful or the child being oversensitive and experiencing regular meltdowns. 

Before we can look at how to respond to a child’s behaviour, it’s important to understand how we interpret that behaviour. When we focus on the behaviour, we see only opposition, disrespect, and defiance. But what happens when we take the time to look behind the behaviour? 

If you’ve completed the Circle of Security Program, you’ll remember the analogy that says focusing on managing behaviour without understanding where the behaviour has come from, is about as effective as throwing the fire extinguisher at the smoke alarm when it goes off. 

Therefore, a change of perspective is in order.

  • The first step to better understanding a child’s behaviour is to ask What if?
    • What if my challenging child isn’t intentionally trying to make mine or others’ lives difficult?
    • What if my child processes the world differently, and this different way of exploring the world looks like opposition, disobedience or misbehaviour?
  • This leads to the second question. What?
    • What is really going on for my child? What’s causing this behaviour?

Over this next week or so we will be posting a series of articles, exploring the What? Once we understand what’s going on for our children, we can then begin to answer the How. You may even find, as you come to understand the heart of your child a little better, a piece of yourself in there too.


The importance of Parenting with Intent

Parenting with intent and purpose requires us to understand the heart of our child, and to align our parenting style with the needs of that heart. The ‘heart’ of your child is literally what makes him tick. How does she process the everyday interactions and events of life? What’s his communication style? How does she see the world around her? What’s his internal dialogue? What drives her? What’s his temperament?

In short, we’re talking about the cognitive and behavioural style of your child.

Studies have shown the importance of a good fit between parental and child behavioural styles. When you know your child’s heart, you can begin to look at the world through their eyes, and you can adjust your behavioural style to suit.

Parenting with intent also requires us to know our values, those important life lessons and characteristics that we want our children to take with them into their future. 

When you know your child’s heart, and know your values, you have a solid foundation for parenting with intent and purpose. This provides a compass to guide you and a benchmark against which to measure all future decisions. For example, Which school is the best fit for your child’s temperament and aligns with your values? Decisions around guiding behaviour, teaching your child, knowing what level of independence to provide as they grow, are all informed by your knowledge of your child, and your values around what’s important for your child to learn and who they are to become.

This gives us the confidence to parent in spite of all the other voices in our ear. These voices and expectations come from well-meaning family and friends, from our community, and from a society which has well defined rules and expectations about how a child should behave and learn.


Understanding the Creative Child

Often, when talking with parents about their child, after digging a little deeper, it becomes apparent that we’re dealing with a creative, sensitive child. Many understand creativity as having a particular skill in the Arts. However, being proficient in the Arts is simply an outworking of creativity, it doesn’t define the creative mindset. 

By definition, creativity means the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc. Positive Psychology defines the creative mindset as the ability to bring something original and valuable into the world. 

In short, Creatives are not defined by what they create, but by how they think. A Creative is passionate, sensitive, purpose driven, and sees the world in a completely different way. We will be exploring what this looks like in subsequent posts, but for now, I want to focus on the Sensitive.

Creatives see both the big picture and the detail. This can cause them to be sensitive to the world around them. For many Creatives this also leads to emotional sensitivity which is expressed in various ways but for the purpose of this series I’m going to focus on three.

  1. Empathy
    • When we have empathy, we’re able to understand what another person feels, to see things from their point of view, and to sense their intent. For a young child who is unable to determine the boundaries between their own feelings and the feelings of others, they can tend to absorb the feelings of others without knowing what those feelings mean, or even being aware that the feelings don’t belong to them.
  2. Internal Perfectionism
    • When one expects far more of themselves than they do of others. This can be crippling, as this person is unable to accept positive feedback if they’ve not performed to the standard they set themselves, leading to feelings of shame and often not even wanting to try, for fear of failing.
  3. Being concerned and/or aware about others’ attitudes toward them
    • This sensitivity, coupled with the sense of internal perfectionism, leads to a child being aware that they process the world around them in a different way to their peers. Not only is this child aware that they are different, they’re also aware that our world does not often value different.


When we fail to understand a creative child, forget our intent and goals for that child, and when we parent according to societal expectations, we are unwittingly confirming for our child that different is not okay.

Of course, every child needs to be understood. It’s an important part of the parent-child connection. But the creative child is more vulnerable in this area. She knows she is different, and different is not valued in our society, her sense of self-worth can only come from you, her parent. 

And this is why it is important for us to shift our perspective when it comes to child behaviour. Because in doing so you are sending a strong message to your child that they are OK, that you believe in them and you love them for who they are, not what they do, or how they behave. Of course, you won’t get it right 100% of the time, there are always so many other factors that can contribute to us not bringing our best selves to every behaviour. But for those times when you are able to be present, having a better understanding of what makes your child tick will make all the difference to your response.


In the next article, we’ll be gaining a better understanding of the child who constantly asks Why?

Sarina Elder

Sarina Elder

Sarina Elder has worked with families and children for over 25 years and is the Parent Workshop Coordinator at KEYS. For more information on upcoming workshops
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