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What Causes Oppositional Defiance and Challenging Behaviors?

October 26th, 2016 | No Comments | Blog

Third in a series originating from my original post on oppositional defiance.

What are the underlying causes of persistent oppositional defiance? Examining these behaviors through the lens of  neuroscience provides a better understanding of what they mean and how we can help children who display them.

Consider the following two children:

Shortly after starting Kindergarten, “Robbie”, 5, began fighting his mother about everything from brushing his teeth to picking up his toys. When he met his teacher for the first time, he looked at his mom, grabbed a book off her shelf and tore out a page.  Mortified, she immediately apologized for Robbie’s behavior.

When“Evan”, 6, came home from school, his dad didn’t realize that he had endured a tough day. Since he looked sad,  his dad started singing a song they loved to sing together. Within seconds, Evan began screaming,  squeezing his dad’s arms and scratching him in the face.

Both sets of parents were exhausted and confused, and had tried everything to help their child. Robbie’s parents employed various positive techniques suggested by parenting books.   Evan’s parents hired a behavior specialist to help him at home and school. Yet no matter how consistent these loving parents were, their strategies had not alleviated the defiant behavior.

Children with persistent oppositional defiance have an underlying commonality: they have difficulty regulating their emotions. This commonality allows us to view their behaviors as stress responses, not purposeful misbehavior to annoy adults or gain “negative” attention.   Each child regularly reached a tipping point, a point in which their reserves to respond to the demands of the situation were insufficient.

At that point, their neuroception–the subconscious detection of safety or threat–detected threat, and the aggressive behaviors emerged.  What appears to be defiance is actually the child’s response to stress, resulting in fight or flight behaviors.

For Robbie, this meant that we investigated the shift in his emotional ability to manage a new school, and separations from his mother and father. His parents focused on relational support and met with his teachers to devise new ways to help him feel more emotionally connected to others at school.

Evan, on the other hand, reflected differences in how his brain and body reacted to certain frequencies and pitches of sound when he was tired or depleted. His behaviors stemmed from physiological needs that altered his neuroception: he reacted as if there was danger, when he was in fact, safe.

Each child is different. Parents and professionals need to patiently investigate the reasons underlying the child’s stress responses.

So what can you do?  Four ways you can help a child who displays oppositional defiance:

Determine if there are patterns to your child’s behaviors and stress responses

Along with trusted professionals, keep track of the behaviors and the events surrounding and leading up to the observable behaviors. Discover if there is a noticeable pattern in activities, requirements, or experiences that may be causing stress to build up for the child.

Pay attention to your child’s ability to stay calm and alert

When a young child has difficulty calming his body down with the help of supportive caregivers, it is important to look for the underlying reasons and address them. If we fail to do so, the child will not be physiologically regulated enough develop emotional resilience and regulate his own behaviors.

Maintain a big picture approach for answers

Professionals outside of the field of mental health including occupational, physical or speech therapists, learning specialists, neuropsychologists, and developmental pediatricians, among others, may shed new light on a child’s challenges and inability to maintain emotional regulation. Therapists trained in inter-disciplinary practice understand the importance of the big picture and working together to support children’s mental health.

Shift from the focus on behaviors to the focus on relational safety

Chances are, if your child has oppositional and defiant behaviors, he has experienced many mixed messages about himself. Just as parents are often confused by what to do, so are kids. Relationships of acceptance and love are what all human beings need to soften a stress response. This doesn’t mean that we don’t provide loving and consistent limits for a child’s misbehavior. It means that we give children the benefit of the doubt and assume that they want to please us. Here is where the concept of neuroception provides a whole new lens by which to manage our children’s challenges, and I will continue to explore that aspect in my next post.

And if you are wondering if there is anything you can do, right now to help your child, there is. Go and do something together that brings joy to you and your child, even for a few moments. It’s nutrition for the mind and body.

*I invite you to join my community newsletter, for blog post updates and excerpts from my upcoming book; and my Facebook page, where I post helpful resources for parents and professionals.

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