Lying and Defiance in Children

The topic of defiance has popped up in my life in several places recently, and so today I share some reflections on it.

When I did my practicum as a therapist in training, I worked at a private mental hospital. In my work with children, they would sometimes describe a home life that sounded unreal, because the details were horrific. Some of these kids, to all appearances, came from “normal” middle-class lives. So I wondered: Could they be telling the truth? Are these kids making up stories? What is real?

I came to a conclusion. The question about truth or lies is a distraction from the underlying need. For some reason, the child is telling this story. It is an expression of need for safety, connection, love. There is a place for determining whether abuse is really occurring, but in a therapy session the goal is to be a loving, open presence with the other soul. To be concerned about whether the child is “pulling one over on me” would not serve.

I also worked with defiant children. Fundamentally, a defiant child is a deeply frightened child. Kids with a tendency to defy authority have strong wills; this quality is neutral. In fact, a strong will can provide energy and discipline to accomplish many goals.

There may be no outwardly apparent reason for a child to be terrified. Some of this is innate to personality. Or, there may be additional exacerbating factors: loss of a parent, abuse, instability at home. The bottom line is the child is afraid and protecting herself or himself by refusing connection.

This type of personality is very challenging to one’s patience. It isn’t easy to reach these souls. It is tempting to call such a child a bad seed, to want to punish and force his will to conform. This won’t work. The only approach is to build trust and connection, which these children are slow to respond to but desperately need.

One resource I found helpful in my work, and even in my personal life, is the book by Dr. Stanley Greenspan: The Challenging Child: Understanding, Raising, and Enjoying the Five “Difficult” Types of Children . His approach of “floor time” with kids — spending 30 minutes a day of time on the floor, playing whatever the child chooses — is an excellent way to build connection. You can also learn more at his website.

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