Causes of childhood defiance

Causes of childhood defiance

Parents call them the terrible twos, but a new study reveals that young children's defiance toward their mothers may be part of healthy development. Defiance may reflect a child’s emerging autonomy and a confidence that he can control events he deems important.

The study, conducted by researchers at UT Austin and the University of Michigan, is published in the July/August 2007 issue of the journal Child Development.

To understand how very young children reacted to being controlled by their parents, the researchers videotaped 119 mostly middle-class mothers as they interacted with their 14- to 27-month-old children. Mothers were asked to have their children avoid a set of attractive toys and, when playtime was over, to get their children to help them clean up the toys they had been allowed to use. Based on the taped interactions, the researchers coded children’s behaviors and categorized them as defiant, compliant, or, ignoring requests.

Children were most likely to be defiant and least likely to ignore requests when they were positively interested in their mothers during the interaction and when their mothers were sensitive and had few symptoms of depression. Children of sensitive mothers also tended to be highly cooperative.

Children with mothers who had symptoms of depression were more likely to ignore requests and less likely to respond with defiance. One reason, researchers suggested, may be that these children do not develop confident assertion with their mothers, learning instead to be overly passive in the face of obstacles.

The results imply that, at ages when parents first ask their children to conform to requests and commands, active resistance is not a sign of problems in child development or in relations between parents and children. Instead, children’s active resistance may reflect a healthy confidence in their ability to control events.

“Although a year or two later, high defiance may be a problem, we found that at this age defiance appeared to be a positive development,” said Theodore Dix, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of human development and family science at The University of Texas at Austin. “It increased with age and was associated with variables that research has shown predict favorable outcomes for children.”

The study was funded, in part, by the National Science Foundation.

Source: Society for Research in Child Development