Is It Really Defiance?

The Engineer’s non-verbal defiance response. (An X for no.)

Lately the Engineer has started a new version of independence that scares the crap out of me.  He’s decided that he’s too old to go into the women’s restroom with me, so he darts off into the men’s room alone without telling me.  Scary.  Despite having several serious discussions with him he defies me and does it anyway.

I ended up posting in a support group for ideas and suggestions on how to discuss this with him without setting off more anxieties. I was struck by how many people suggested telling him “I said no, end of the discussion.”  I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time because I wish things were that simple.  He’s never taken “because I said so” as reason to obey, even as a toddler.

The Engineer is defiant.  When I say that, you probably think the standard 5-year-old kind of defiance.  The “no, I’m NOT eating my green beans!” kind of defiance.  The gentler, kinder version of defiance, mitigated by the underlying knowledge that the parent is in control and it’s only a matter of time until the kid has to give in.

Let me give you a picture of what our life is like.  The kind of defiance where I hand the Engineer his clothes so that he can get dressed, and he flings them to the floor and yells “NO! I’M NOT GETTING DRESSED!” and storms off.   The situation where we stop to pick up lunch and he refused to get out of the car because he didn’t feel like going in.  The time he wanted to go outside, so he unlocked the deadbolt and 2 other locks so that he could walk out while we were asleep.  The kind of defiance where I’m running towards him screaming “NOOOO!” and he looks at me, smiles, and does it anyway.  The kind of defiance where I seriously wonder how I can stop him in a safety situation (if you’re curious, yes, I’m fully prepared to tackle him to the ground if he defies me and heads into the street.)

Part of it is the whole gifted, “I am smarter than you so I don’t have to listen to you” idea.  Part of it is his impulse control issue.  But, I’ve come to realize that it’s far more complex than just simple defiance.  In fact, it might not truly be defiance at all.

I read a great article in a series by Dr. Mona Delahook discussing faulty neuroception: the idea that stress has triggered a fight/flight response to an overwhelming situation.  Every kid wants approval.  They crave it, especially from people they look up to.  So if your kid is being consistently defiant it’s a clear sign that something is wrong, that something is putting them into a stress-response situation.

I should point out that I am not a medical expert.  I am simply a mom trying to figure out what’s going on underneath the surface of my 2e kiddo.

When you have a kid who intellectually understands things like war and death at a young age but lacks the developmental ability to put it in a relative worldview, that breeds anxiety.  Anxiety is a bear.  It’s nagging, ever-present, and scary as anything to a kid who doesn’t understand what stress physically does to your body.  Anxiety is like your own personal thundercloud following you around.

And when a kid like mine worries about practically everything, it causes behavioral problems.  He might refuse to get out of the car because he’s scared he’ll misbehave.  You know that sickening feeling you might have standing on a tall place?  That feeling that you are irresistably drawn to the edge and will fall off?  That’s what it’s like for him.

Lately he’s telling me how to drive.  He’s glued to the road, and watches every move I make like a hyper-alert police officer waiting for a reason to pull you over.  He’s petrified that we’re going to get into another car accident, and this is his way of trying to exert control over the situation.  If he feels in control it helps alleviate his anxiety.   Realistically he knows that he has no control whatsoever and that just makes matters worse.  I can’t assure him that things will be ok because he is smart enough to know that it could easily happen again.

I keep coming back to his anxiety as the root of all of our issues.  His doctors looked at me weird when I marched into the office clutching paperwork and asking if they’re familiar with PDA.  Most of them have never even heard of it.

I’ve been researching PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance Syndrome) because I believe that this is the best diagnosis fit for the Engineer.  It’s not recognized here in the US, but the Brits got a jump on us and list it as a subset of ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder.)  It’s anxiety based – asking a PDA kid to do anything (like get dressed) is enough to trigger their anxieties into a fight/flight situation.  It’s crippling.

Anxiety truly is life-altering.  You live differently because of it.  You act differently because of it.  It affects you physically.  It’s scary for a kid to experience anxiety – can you blame them for acting out when they’re in a constant state of fear?

Because of my research and my constant search for answers I’m trying to ignore the defiance and focus on alleviating the Engineer’s fears.  When he learns to actively regulate his out-of-whack body’s responses, then the behavioral issues will abate by themselves.  It’s difficult!  I have a hard time managing stress: teaching a 5-year-old those techniques is mind-boggling!

His doctors keep muttering about ADHD meds or stronger stuff to deal with the behavioral issues.  I stand firm – deal with the anxieties first and then we’ll see where we stand.  They say he’s too young for anxiety meds, so we’re waiting.  For now.

So if you’re dealing with a defiance issue, take a moment and think.  Could there be a stress situation that’s triggering your child?  Is it sensory?  Schoolwork?  Expectations? A bully at school?  Don’t take no for an answer, find the why behind the no. Above all, be a safe place for your kid.  Your love should be the rock-solid cornerstone for your child that helps ground them in a storm of emotions.  You aren’t helpless and ineffective as we often feel in the face of defiance.  Own that inner mamma bear and figure out what’s going on.

Just don’t expect them to tell you.  They may not even know.


    • Thanks 🙂 I’ve always felt that if we could solve the puzzle we could help our kid cope better. Might be optimistic, but a little hope goes a long way.


  1. My kids, especially my eldest, are also not as obedient as I want them to be. I am usually concerned that they might get hurt or get someone hurt because of their wild imagination and strong impulses. I deal with safety issues daily. I have explained things to them a hundred times or maybe more. But the pull to those things I told them they need to ask permission from me first seems to be too strong for them to ignore. 😦


  2. I have never heard of PDA, but it looks like I have some research of my own to do now. It’s so frustrating to get half answers because your kid doesn’t fit into any of their boxes. We have an anxiety personality with spd, who is extremely stubborn…that is all they can tell me. And yeah, “because I said so” doesn’t work when said child pushes back with “because is not an answer” from the time they were toddlers.


    • Anxiety can mimic so many other things, it’s tough! And of course, mine rarely displays the behaviors to doctors, for some weird reason only known to him. So difficult when the anxiety and stubborn collide!


  3. Fantastic article. I totally relate to your reaction to the, ‘I said no, end of discussion’ advice!

    Are you in the PowerWood Facebook group, Mary? There are some mums of kids with OEs/anxiety there who’d love to discuss this sort of thing. (But no pressure; I understand we don’t have unlimited time and energy and you’re making a great contribution here with your regular blogging presence.)


  4. My “defiant” child isn’t anxious, he’s just mainly bored (also gifted, with a dash of “I know better than you” and a serious lack of impulse control). I can tell him the safe/acceptable way to proceed, I can demonstrate and show him…. but he is just not interested in the known! He leaps into the tantalizing unknown with great abandon, no previous thought to how this might turn out.

    The bathroom challenge is one we experienced as well, and crazy mama bear me didn’t hesitate to go charging into the men’s right after after my intrepid explorer, yelling apologies and explanations at the top of my lungs.

    We also had 3 locks on all our home entrances, one of them being a custom deadbolt installed higher than a child could reach, even standing on a chair.

    Yes, we mamas are rock solid in our love and determination to allow our kiddos to experience the world in a safe way. I will not be shamed, embarrassed, or deterred from that goal by anyone – especially not my own child.

    Upside is, my thrill seeker is amenable to negotiation, thank God! He was allowed in men’s bathrooms only when dad was around (much to my husband’s horror as those are far more filthy and disgusting than the ladies bathroom) and when it was just me, we searched for “family” bathrooms that were lockable. Which is a whole ‘nother story negotiating reasonable actions and amount of time acceptable while mom is waiting on the other side of locked door. Sigh.

    Getting dressed…he’d only put clothes on if he could do it himself, his own way. We were stopped innumerable times by well-intention strangers pointing out on backwards, inside out, untied garments who all had no idea how lucky we were that said kiddo was wearing them at all.

    On the monkey bars, flips over to hang by his feet with no idea how to get down from that position. I still remember that moment in slow motion, hands reaching out, running like I’m stuck in molasses, “Noooooooooo” – He. Just. Lets Go. And Drops. Seriously! Wind knocked out of him, survived intact, discussion consensus was that was not anything fun worth repeating. Maybe the next time we are in a “stuck” situation, we should wait and ask for help? Maybe.

    I can’t help but laugh along with you at the “just say no” advice. Before the words are even out of my mouth, the deed is already done! Any gifted child is going to learn early on that asking forgiveness is a much more successful strategy for getting your own way than asking permission.


    • Forgiveness is easier – especially when they’re certain it’s a good idea and no one will get hurt! I swear, I have a teenager.. Good to know I’m not alone, although I wouldn’t wish this on anyone!


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