American Academy of Pediatrics

Understanding Disobedience 
From time to time most children defy the wishes of their parents. This is a part of growing up and testing adult guidelines and expectations. It is one way for children to learn about and discover their own selves, express their individuality, and achieve a sense of autonomy. As they stretch their independent wings and engage in minor conflicts with their parents, they discover the boundaries of their parents’ rules and of their own self-control.

Sometimes, however, these conflicts are more than occasional disturbances and become a pattern for how parents and children interact. Disobedience can have a variety of causes. At times, it is due to unreasonable parental expectations. Or it might be related to the child’s temperament, or to school problems, family stress, or conflicts between his parents.

Youngsters who are generally cooperative and agreeable may suddenly become disrespectful and disobedient during middle childhood. This is usually a sign that they are experiencing a lot of inner turmoil or that a significant new stress is occurring around them, such as abuse or school failure. Their hostility is directed toward the nearest target, those closest to them, and is a way of coping with and expressing the stress they feel.

Some children may have a lengthy history of being out of control and noncooperative. This is a serious problem. When children have been disobedient for long periods–routinely talking back to and having outbursts aimed at their parents and others–there is often conflict and disorganization within the family as a whole. The children may reject their parents’ authority, feeling that their mother and father disapprove not only of their behavior but of them as people. Thus, these youngsters learn to be unhappy with themselves, and their self-esteem can suffer greatly. Gradually, if the family relationships continue to deteriorate, the children become even more angry, sad, hostile, and aggressive.

When you have a chronically disobedient child, examine the possible sources of his inner turmoil and rebelliousness. If this has been a persistent pattern that has continued into middle childhood, closely evaluate your own family situation: How much respect do your family members show for one another? Do they respect one another’s privacy, ideas, and personal values? How does the family work out its conflicts? Are disagreements resolved through rational discussion, or do people regularly argue or resort to violence? What is your usual style of relating to your child, and what forms does discipline usually take? How much spanking and yelling is there? Do you and your child have very different personalities and ways of getting along in the world that cause friction between you? Is your child having trouble succeeding at school or developing friendships? Is the family undergoing some especially stressful times?

If your child has only recently started to demonstrate disrespect and disobedience, tell him that you have noticed a difference in his behavior and that you sense he is unhappy or struggling. With his help, try to determine the specific cause of his frustration or upset. This is the first step toward helping him change his behavior.

If you react to your child’s talking back by exploding or losing your temper, he will respond with disobedience and disrespect. By contrast, he will become more obedient when you remain calm, cooperative, and consistent. He will learn to be respectful if you are respectful toward him and others in the family. If he becomes disobedient and out of control, impose a timeout until he calms down and regains self-control.

When your child is obedient and respectful, compliment him for that behavior. Reward the behavior you are seeking, including cooperation and resolution of disagreements. These positive efforts will always be much more successful than punishment.

As a parent, you need to keep in mind that middle childhood is a vulnerable period of life. Young school-age children are quite egocentric, thinking that all events that happen around them have something to do with themselves. For example, in families where there is marital conflict, youngsters may misinterpret this problem, concluding that they themselves have been bad and have upset their parents. In the process their self-esteem may suffer, and they may be more prone to reacting inappropriately to the events around them.

© Copyright 2000 American Academy of Pediatrics