Some Reflections about Acts of Defiance in our Children

Sometimes the mere act of setting a limit arouses a defiant response. Have you ever had an experience where you tell yourself you are not going to do a certain thing and the next thing you know, you are aching to do that very thing with more fervor than you could ever have imagined? It is commonplace, for example, that when we decide to go on a diet, we feel hungrier than ever; that when we make a resolution not to procrastinate, we feel more in need of taking our time than ever…

The struggle we experience is a result of our ambivalence—a part of us wants to, and a part of us does not want to. It does not mean that we do not take our own resolutions seriously or that we want to defeat our own goals, but it means that we are not wholeheartedly committed to our own decision, we are torn, we want to have our cake and eat it too.

When our children struggle with our demands and instructions, it is not necessarily a statement of their lack of respect, their lack of love, or their desire to defy us; it's a manifestation of their ambivalence. A part of them wants to please us, another part of them wants to know what it's like not to. If we take our children's gestures of disobedience as categorical efforts to undermine our authority or as evidence of something being wrong with us or them, we may not be able to help them with their ambivalence. Moreover, the feelings that such a perception or interpretation of our children's behaviors would create in us could easily interfere with our ability to guide them in resolving their ambivalence in a constructive manner. If we are angry or feel inadequate or question our own authority as parents, we may not recognize both sides of our children's struggle; we may not have the emotional presence to help our children sort through both aspects of their torn feelings; we may become reactive or defensive and feel that we “need” our children to listen to us in order for us to feel good about ourselves.

-- Dr. Haleh Stahl

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