The root of all defiant, stubborn behavior

Sometimes it can be so easy for me to forget how far we have come and just happily skip along my merry way, thinking that everything is “normal” now and we are never going back to the scary early days of this parenting journey.  Perhaps short-term memory is a trauma parenting survival mechanism.   Nevertheless, today we had another little situation that could have escalated, but didn’t (thankyouGodthankyouGodthankyouGod).

We were coming home from what I call a “mini-vacation” —  which is a sneaky but brilliant little trick I borrowed from my own parents’ toolkit.  We just drove down the street to a hotel to stay overnight, swam in the pool, used up as many clean towels and tiny soaps/shampoos as possible, got breakfast, and came home feeling refreshed from a change of scenery and routine.   Yeah, it’s kinda cheap, but soooo much easier than finding and paying for a dog sitter, driving a million miles away from home, and then dealing with the extra stress of being so far away.

So, on the way home, I decided that we were both too tired to deal with cooking dinner, so we’d stop at a restaurant.   First mistake – I asked my son where he wanted to go.   He got very excited and shouted, “Chinese!”   Which would have been ok maybe, but my stomach was a little off, and I really didn’t want anything too spicy or greasy – thinking something like a salad would be better.  So I gave him a couple of other restaurant options that had salads.

He got very upset.

Now. Those of you who have been parenting kids with trauma histories know that what I mean by this simple statement “he got very upset” is that we had a potential full-blown 911 situation on our hands, just because I told him I didn’t want Chinese food.

With a “normal” kid with no trauma history, you would just hold your ground and say “too bad – no Chinese for you today!”  But our kids can’t handle that approach.   So it takes a delicate touch – with extreme, super-human patience and empathy (that is especially hard to muster when we the parent is just as tired and hungry as the kid).

There are times when I really really do NOT want to be a good trauma-informed parent and I feel that I deserve to throw my own little temper tantrum.  This was one of them.

But I bit my lip and took the high road.  I told him my feelings about not wanting Chinese, said “let’s solve the problem together” and offered him a list of other restaurants with salads as well as foods he likes. He shook his head “no” with an angry, defiant look on his face.

I told him I could just take him home and cook something there.  No!   Go to the grocery store to get food?  No!  He dug in his heels and…Would.  Not.   Budge.

This is the point at which some parents resort to threats, bribes, angry tirades, and punishments.    I usually run through all of those options in my mind and discard them pretty quickly these days, as I know they are 100% futile.

For a split second, I even thought about dropping him off at the Chinese restaurant with a ten dollar bill and then going off to eat by myself at another restaurant in peace.  Like that would have even worked.   Still, it was tempting…

Instead, I just pulled into the nearest parking lot of a place that was NOT a restaurant and parked the car.   I knew if I took him home, he could potentially ramp up into a huge and destructive meltdown there.  If I took him to a restaurant he didn’t want, he might also throw a fit or have a meltdown.

No win situation.  Sit it out and wait was the only thing I could think of.

And stop driving, for safety’s sake.

We sat in silence for about 10 minutes.  I felt sorry for myself for the first two minutes,  ran through a list of “ways to get him to do what I want without a full meltdown” in my head for the next five minutes, then spent the final three minutes calming myself and turning my heart and mind towards an empathetic, heart-driven response.    This always starts with asking myself, “WHY does he only want Chinese? What is she AFRAID of in this situation?”

That question of WHY is he doing this and what is he AFRAID of is one of the biggest keys to healing his heart and keeping our family intact.

One of the biggest and most important lessons that I have learned about parenting kids with trauma histories is that defiance and what looks like stubborn behavior is NEVER what it really looks like on the surface.

“Defiance” is ALWAYS rooted in some kind of fear.

In fact, there is usually something in my child’s early life history that is so incredibly terrifying that when he is triggered, he immediately resorts to complete disengagement from conversation along with some kind of reptile-brain behavior along the spectrum of shutdown-meltdown-blowup-aggression-violence.

So…. I pondered this “What is he afraid of?” question for a bit, and suddenly realized that what he loves about the Chinese restaurant is that the portions are so huge we always end up taking some home in a box.   So he feels safe that he won’t run out of food.   If we go to another restaurant, he might not have enough for leftovers.  And that means he might run out of food.  To a kid who grew up hungry and poor and was abandoned at an orphanage, this is a terrifying prospect.

I took a deep breath, looked at him lovingly, and asked softly, “Do you like the Chinese because you will have food to take home?”  He nodded his head yes.  “And… you’re afraid of not having enough food.”   Yes, with a crocodile tear forming.

And now my heart is soft and I am snapped back to being his protective Mama Bear again.   This is what he needs so, so desperately.

“What if we go to the other restaurant instead so mom can get a salad, and I will get you the SUPER size double hamburger?  Does that feel safe?”    Yes.   “Good.  Ok, then we solved the problem together!  Great job!  Give me a hug, sweetie.  I don’t want you to be afraid of not enough food.”

Here is where it gets so interesting every time I end up giving him what he THINKS he needs….  He was calm.   We went to the restaurant.  He ordered the super sized hamburger, but didn’t finish it.   I said nothing about it.  HE then said reflectively,  “Mom, I think I don’t really need that big hamburger.  Next time I’m going to order the regular size.”

This is what makes having an open heart of empathy SO crucial in parenting children with trauma histories.  In the end, if I give him the freedom and the empathy, he always ends up making his OWN wise decisions that are good for him and based on his thoughtful, reasoning brain.    This is ten thousand times better than just obeying me because I forced him to comply with my parental control.

Just a side note – the first three years of parenting this way did NOT always result in a happy ending. It took lots of time and consistency before he finally believed it in his bones that I am on his side and not trying to hurt him. It also took me that long to believe in my bones that he is not being defiant but is actually terrified of something. So we both had a lot to learn.

Trust takes time and patience. Now we usually navigate these things successfully. Not always, but most of the time. Plus, he’s 14 now, and a little maturity goes a long way. Hang in there, Warrior Mamas and Papas!

It is not easy to parent this way, but the rewards are so worth it.   And… my salad was delicious, too.   🙂





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3 thoughts on “The root of all defiant, stubborn behavior

  1. Good for you, and boy is it hard. It is great to read other Mom’s parenting similarly. Sometimes, I wonder if I am doing the “right” thing for my kids when I let them rage until we find the underlying fear. Then I remember it worked worse when I parented with screams and threats. Really proud of you.

    • Thanks, Kathy! Yes. So, so hard. I’m not sure we can do anything about the rage but let them express it. Rage does not comply with orders, anyway. Rage is like a hurricane. Hunker down, try to stay safe, then clean up the damage and work on transforming those underlying fears… ever so slowly, until they become less likely to trigger the rage.

  2. This is so, so helpful and encouraging!!! When the fruits of our labor are not seen right away, it’s easy to get discouraged and think this parenting technique just isn’t working. Thank you for the reminder that it does and it will. And, for a very practical glimpse into a real-life application!!! I just love this.

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