"Defiant” behaviour by children seems to bring out the worst in adults, provoking them to react with their own feelings rather than with deliberate thoughts. Instead of allowing ourselves to become irritated, adults should more thoroughly investigate what this behaviour means. The difference between failure and success depends on whether or not we gear our curative and preventive measures towards the type of affliction involved.
The actual phenomenon of “defiance” has many degrees ranging from “light” to “severe and dangerous.” Unfortunately, the degree does not indicate in any given case what lies behind the behaviour. No matter which specific form defiance may take, it may derive from any one or a mixture of at least four types of affliction:
We want our children to retain the capacity for intelligent rebellion “courage to stick to what they believe in even against strong-armed pressure and the fear of becoming unpopular with the mob. All traits we want must grow through developmental phases. “Intelligent rebellion”, too, needs leeway to be learned and practised. Certain age ranges seem to be especially cut out for the practice of “emancipation acrobatics.” The sixteen-year-old who participates in an incident of vandalism because he is afraid of being called a sissy is not a defiant child. He is a coward, an overconformist, and a spineless lickspittle for public acclaim. One of the nation's greatest problems at this time is to find out how to help our young people stick to what they believe in, even in defiance of whatever opinion or action might be popular at the moment with the rest of the youthful crowd.
Some youthful defiant behaviour may be compared to the process of regurgitation. If you pour poison or stuff pins down somebody’s throat, his organism will probably rebel by choking reactions to ward off the hurtful intrusion. Vomiting under such conditions is not a symptom of illness. On the contrary, it is the defence of a healthy organism against hurt from the outside. A lot of youthful “defiant” behaviour is not the outcropping of a corrupt or morbid personality, but the defence of a healthy one against the kind of treatment that shouldn’t happen to a dog but often does happen to children.
In a group of normal children bored beyond limit by stupid teaching methods, the intelligent ones will be the first to become “hard to handle”. If a child with deep-seated anxieties is put into solitary confinement under frightening circumstances, the resulting temper tantrum will not be his “warped personality” coming to the fore but his desperate defence against total breakdown. His frantic muscle spasms and aggressive mauling of the surrounding outside world are the expressions of his inward terror. Such "reactive defiance" calls for consideration not only of what’s wrong with the child but also of what is wrong with what we are doing to him.
Defiance as a wrapping
Other “defiant acts” by youthful offenders may be the secondary accompaniment of any of a variety of mental diseases. Why should Billy, a well-loved and well-cared-for child, one day suddenly act up, hanging on to furniture and kicking and biting when you try to make him go to school? His “unprovoked” behaviour looks like the “rebellious child” until you learn that Billy has deep-seated fears of any “crowd” situation “fears that are irrational but extremely intense.
The panic aroused in Billy’s mind is in itself a “sickness”, an anxiety neurosis. Defiance that comes as a “wrapping” around some other disease is especially frustrating because in such cases the techniques so often found helpful with other defiant children are totally ineffectual. The result is a loud cry for some form of physical punishment. Unfortunately, in these cases physical punishment is the most futile and most damaging technique we could use.
When defiance is a “wrapping,” the only thing to do is to tackle the disease behind the wrapping. All other efforts are useless.
The defiant ego
This, unfortunately, is the most neglected, although the most serious, form of defiance. Children with “defiant egos” act destructively any time they so desire because they enjoy it. If they want their “fun” they are going to have it. Either they have not developed any conscience “those “voices from within” “that would make them feel bad about “fun” that is unjustly had at somebody else’s expense, or they have developed very skillful tricks for putting those “voices” out of commission should they tend to interfere.
The “defiant ego” is the type of affliction that may justifiably be classified as “delinquent”, even if the defiance does not seem to have any “legal” implications.
The early recognition of such afflictions and the determination of conditions for preventive and therapeutic work with them constitute some of the main themes upon which research is required today. The answer to the problem of defiant youth must be sought in the direction of more practice-geared research, greater concerted effort toward the education of the public in the causes of defiance, and more courage to think straight even under the impact of panic and wrath.
This feature was reprinted from the Journal of Emotional and Behavioural Disorders, and was condensed from Fritz RedI (1966), When we Deal with Children. New York: The Free Press, a Division of Macmillan, Inc.