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 a child's difficult or intense temperament, or to school problems, family stress, or conflicts between his parents.
In some instances these children have demonstrated a persistent pattern of disobedience throughout their development, beginning in their early years. They may resist authority by talking back to and disobeying their parents. They may stubbornly tell their parents no when asked to do something. In many cases this behavior occurs only at home; at other times it is a pattern with all authority figures (teachers, babysitters, grandparents) in all settings. This latter situation, of course, is of greater concern.
Other 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 non-cooperative. 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. This might include harsh punishment and family relationship problems, including physical aggressiveness between family members. 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.
Many disobedient children do not adequately communicate the reasons for their sadness or discomfort, or their parents are unable to understand what they are trying to express. This breakdown in communication sometimes occurs if the child is not receiving enough parental attention, perhaps because his parents are preoccupied with their own lives, careers, and problems.
For some children, aggressive and disobedient behavior is a response to violence they see within the family. To youngsters raised in abusive environments, aggressive behavior may seem like a reasonable way to deal with anger or frustration or seem like the way to solve problems between people. Many families with disobedient children resort to physical abuse as one of their techniques for disciplining. But physical punishment leads to more aggressive behavior by the children, and a vicious cycle is established. Children raised in this type of setting are at much greater risk for lifelong problems with interpersonal relationships and authority.
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.