When we feel overwhelmed or depleted, the brain might do one of two things: say no to the demands on it, or comply and then become depressed, blow up later about something seemingly unrelated, or stew in anxiety. Of these choices, defiance is by far the healthiest. Listening to the body rather than trying to suppress its messages prevents both mental and physical health issues down the road.
When children and teens are defiant, it is usually because of what neuroscientist, Lisa Feldman Barrett, in her two books, How Emotions are Made and 7 1/2 Lessons of the Brain calls the body budget. Just as you budget money by deciding on what and when to spend or save, the brain has to budget the body’s resources to determine when best to spend them and how much. It is what, according to Barrett, neuroscientists have determined is the reason the brain came into being when organisms began to be able to move around.
When you make a simple request or command such as, “Hey honey, could you grab the door, my hands are full,” or “It’s time to go,” or “Turn off the game—time’s up,” you put a demand on the child or youth's nervous system. If it is already low on reserves, tension in the body signals them to say “No,” which can create tension in your relationship. We are wired to get along unless there is an express reason to do otherwise. We're also wired to recover from relationship ruptures. If they feel safe enough, any child/teen will respond to your sincere attempts to make amends, even if they are awkward or clumsy.
So what are ways to respond to defiance? This can be a good time to teach body and stress awareness. When a child says no, you might ask, “Where do you feel that ‘no’ in your body?” Or, “I wonder why your body is telling us ‘no?’” You might let it go in the moment and then come back to it later when the child or teen's body is calm and their brain is more receptive. You can ask, “Remember when I asked you to _____ and it gave your body a stress response? How about we think of some ideas that would make it so you could feel that way a lot less often?"
For ideas, you might start with pulling back on activities, including your child in household chores so there is more structured time with you, giving your child fewer commands over the course of the day and turning those commands into questions, or using sensory soothers to relieve stress. For more on the Body Budget and how to apply this knowledge to any relationship, sign up for the workshop, "Anti-Bias Practice Toward Children."
Helpful ways of responding to defiance can also be applied to you. Perhaps you have been feeling frustrated or defeated by your own behaviors where you can't get yourself to do certain things or stop doing certain things. This might apply to your eating, exercise, cleaning, or being kind. You too might benefit from stress reduction as a way to free up your body budget so your body has more bandwidth for living the way you want.
One way to do that can be to take good care of your own emotions. Suppressed and ignored emotions take up a lot of our body budget! To support you in learning how to care for your emotional world, I've put together a class called "Reparenting Yourself," available now for registration.