According to definitions.uslegal.com, the definition of willful disobedience is the intentional disobedience by a free agent who knows what he is doing, although not necessarily acting with malice or evil intent. Vocabulary.com states that Willful means “deliberate” or “stubborn.” A child who exhibits willful disobedience knows she is doing something wrong (even if she tries to convince you otherwise). For most people, willful disobedience is the child’s deliberate choice to disobey even after he has been reminded and given a chance to correct his behavior.
Is there a time when a child or even an adult would choose to disobey? Yes. In childhood, this is a part of development; learning to think independently, assess a situation, negotiate needs, use moral compass to make decisions. We would not be comfortable with a child that mindlessly obeys. Just think for a moment of the many tragedies that have or could arise out of blind obedience.
Why do we seek obedience as caregivers? Generally, we would like our children to grow up to be more or less civilized. We would like them to feel comfortable doing what they are supposed to do. How do we teach this to children?
We must remember that true obedience is based on a foundation of love and trust, not fear. We teach obedience through discipline. Now let’s clarify what discipline means… it may not mean what you think it means. Discipline means to learn. It does not mean to issue a punishment or ensure consequence. In working with children from hard places, we must be careful to show great love in the process of discipline [teaching/learning]. It really matters where our hearts are. No learning takes place when anger is present. A child may act out of fear, and it will resemble obedience. But it is not the same. Nothing is learned, character isn’t shaped, bonds are not forged, and positive growth doesn’t occur.
A child may also act out of fear and it does not resemble obedience. More often than not, this is what is seen in children from hard places. (**Remember that this does not just mean abuse/neglect but there are six risk factors to a child’s healthy development: difficult pregnancy, difficult birth, early/prolonged hospitalization, abuse, neglect, trauma**) The fear response, also known as fight, flight, or freeze originates in the amygdala of the brain (aka small brain, lizard brain, survival center.)
Common fight responses:
Long after a traumatic experience is over, it may be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger and mobilize disturbed brain circuits and secrete massive amounts of stress hormones. This precipitates unpleasant emotions intense physical sensations, and impulsive and aggressive actions. These posttraumatic reactions feel incomprehensible and overwhelming. Feeling out of control, survivors of trauma often begin to fear that they are damaged to the core and beyond redemption. Imagine if you shout, “Look over here!” and your child startles, dropping to the ground. Do you think that your child was willfully disobedient or scared? We don’t equate an adult’s fear response with willful disobedience. Why would we? It’s an instinct, a reflex to survive.
So let’s make the switch in how we view our children’s fear responses. Instead of seeing the behavior as willful disobedience, we must view the behavior for what it is – a survival instinct. We must change the lens through which we view behavior. It is an expression of need that children are unable to verbalize. They may not be aware of the fear that they feel (it is a reflex after all… the husband who is suddenly rushing to lift the car off of his wife is not able to say “I’m so scared I must run and lift this vehicle.” He can only react to that fear.)
Are you ready to make the switch?
“A lot of ‘seeing the need’ is understanding the impact of trauma on kids. Having compassion and understanding helps us to see the need. Seeing the need is changing your frame of reference so you realize that these aberrant behaviors are survival strategies rather than willful disobedience. If you look at your child’s behavior through the lens of his history, his actions make perfect sense. Understanding attachment and any deficits in early development also helps us to see the need behind behavior.” – Dr. David Cross
Ask yourself, “what does my child need?” when faced with challenging behaviors. By conducting a quick mental inventory of the current environment, previous events of the day, and any known triggers, we can often make a good guess at what our child needs when she is struggling. If you’re not sure, say, “Buddy, I want to help you. Can you use your words or show me what you need?” in a calm, non-threatening tone. Your child’s answer may surprise you.
It’s time to stop parenting the shark we see on top of the water ad get to the needs of the goldfish underneath.