Annie Keeling: A defiant child |

Annie Keeling: A defiant child

A distraught parent came to me recently about her son. (Let’s call them Nan and James). She was extremely exhausted by his anger and defiance.

She had explained it away when he was younger. “He’s spirited.” “He’s willful.”

But more recently, she couldn’t ignore that his challenges were increasing.

A bright and funny six year old, James was called precocious from an early age – extremely verbal and an early reader.

Yet, the child’s opposition created great frustration for Nan. Everything was a negotiation with her son. He was uncooperative and refused most requests. He loved to get together with friends and go to school two days a week, but he leaned toward disruptive behavior and was often told by the teacher to stop interrupting.

Nan was told by other parents and family members that James would grow out of this behavior. But some of his off-track behaviors seemed to be getting worse, not better.

When Nan spoke with the pediatrician, the doctor asked some helpful questions. They were able to determine that the boy was not usually anxious, fearful or depressed. His intellectual and language skills were developmentally on track. The most concerning behaviors included easily losing his temper, arguing with adults, refusing to cooperate, easily annoyed by others, and often angry and resentful.

I asked questions as well and determined that she was a caring, competent parent with respectful and educated parenting skills. There did not appear to be inadvertent negative reinforcement on her part or extreme power struggles.

Yet, she was at her wit’s end. James often seemed unhappy, sensitive and frustrated. His temperament did seem more challenging than the other children Nan knew.

How could she help him?

Be a Curious Detective

First, I recommended she take him to a specialist to determine if there was a learning disability that might make it hard for him to understand what he was being asked to do.

In the meantime, were there reasons why he might be so temperamentally difficult? What if James had good reason to be so angry and resentful?

Nan and I dug into any patterns she had noticed. She shared that there were daily negative, hostile, and defiant behaviors towards her as well as with a small group of friends that gathered weekly. She noticed that if his toys got moved when she was cleaning, he got angry. If Nan interrupted his play with a request, he got upset and physical with her.

With friends, if he was asked to share a toy or if another child got too close to him, he would push or kick, unable to access his highly developed language skills when distressed.

I shared with Nan about the work of Jean Ayers, an occupational therapist who developed the theory of sensory integration. This included understanding how the human sensory system influences our ability to perform daily tasks smoothly and competently.

Ayers recognized that some children had more irregularities than others in their brain’s response to sensory information. This could be difficulties with attention, emotional regulation, motor coordination, activity level, peer relationships, or academic achievement. One challenge is that sensory issues often go unrecognized by parents, teachers, and even doctors.

Together, Nan and I explored James behavior through a sensory lens. We asked the question, “What if inefficient sensory processing was interfering with his ability to cooperate?”

The Seven Senses

Typically, we think of the senses as touch, sight, sound, taste and smell. It is important to be aware of two other hidden senses: vestibular and proprioceptive.

Located in the inner ear, the vestibular system is stimulated by head, neck, eye, and body movements. It helps us maintain our balance and tells us whether we are in motion or at rest. It also registers the movement of objects around us.

Ayres considered this system to be an anchor for physical and emotional security.

The proprioceptive system has to do with knowing our body, where it is, and how it is moving. Proprioceptors send information to our brain from our muscles, joints, and bones. It’s a massive and predominant system throughout our bodies.

Together the proprioceptive and vestibular system literally keep us grounded.

When we looked at his behavior with the idea that he might have a sensory challenge, this changed Nan’s thinking about her son. She had been so sure that he was willfully disobeying. Now there was a new range of possibilities. Rather than believing that James was purposefully defiant, Nan recognized that he was doing the best he could.

She was able to take James to a pediatric occupational therapist who diagnosed and worked with James’ particular sensory issues. While he may outgrow some of these issues, he and his family now have access to specific tools that are creating positive change for this amazing child.

Annie Keeling, MFA, is the Parenting Specialist for Nevada County Superintendent of Schools. Currently, she is teaching parenting classes online. Contact Annie for more information: or 530-268-5086.

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