“When we confront Devin about his behavior, he just acts like it’s not a big deal or blames someone else,” stated Patty. She and Carl were convinced that their ten-year-old son’s frequent lies and defensiveness were another sign that he didn’t care about them and their values.
They were skeptical when I (Lynne) stated, “The kids that look like they care the least, usually care the most, but are deeply discouraged.” Kids’ defensive responses are a protection against the subconscious but powerful beliefs, “I am a failure and a disappointment, and therefore will be rejected.”
Unfortunately parents’ natural response to a defensive child is to work harder to convince them that their behavior is a problem, a BIG problem, which often includes non-verbals that communicate “you are a big problem, and you’re ignorant if you don’t see your problem and fix it!!!” This threatens to drive beliefs of failure even deeper and actually increases a child’s determination to deny responsibility or wrongdoing.
As Patty and Carl persevered at being more affectionate and encouraging with Devin despite his difficult behavior, they saw a variety of positive changes in attitude and behavior. Then one night a breakthrough happened. Devin locked his door so he could break the rules and play his Nintendo DS at bedtime. His dad stopped by twice to connect with Devin and both times he quickly hid his DS, opened the door, and denied locking it. “The lock must be sticky… Really sticky.” Though he was suspicious, Carl was intentionally loving as he visited with his son. As you’ll see, it was in this safe and loving space (instead of space where he felt defensive) that Devin began feeling guilty for his actions, instead of defensive against parental accusations and anger.
A little while later Devin left a note, “Dad I have something really bad to tell you.” When Carl came in, the “kid who didn’t care” unlocked a floodgate of tears, honesty and remorse! “I lied when I told you the door locked itself,” he sobbed. “I was playing on my DS.” It was clear that he did care, very much, about what he’d done. Carl listened gently and affirmed his honesty. He later sent his son this text: “Devin I am sad that u lied to me but I am proud that u made the right choice to admit your sin. It honors both God and me. It shows that you are maturing. I love you no matter what. You can always talk to me. Even if it is hard. – Dad.” This is the kind of safety and connection that empowers kids to be honest and admit when they’ve messed up.
When people feel truly connected on a heart level in a relationship, and know that they will be loved-no-matter-what, it becomes safe to admit failures. (This applies to people of all ages…)
If you and your child are stuck in a cycle of confrontation and defensiveness, it’s time for some honest self-evaluation: When I confront my child, do my tone of voice, expressions, body language, and even my words communicate a subtle (or not so subtle) message of, “You are a failure, a disappointment, and loved conditionally”? You may not be intending to communicate this, but what counts is what your child is believing about himself. So here are some practical ideas to change this pattern:
- Focus on connecting with, enjoying, and encouraging your child.
- View an incident of defensiveness as an indicator of discouragement and insecurity, and an opportunity to communicate that you love your child no matter what. Put a discussion of the problem on hold until everyone is calm, and you know that “love has landed” on your child’s heart.
- Learn to gently ask questions – “How are you feeling about this? What do you feel good about? What do you wish you had done differently?” (Be sure to answer this question first for yourself.)
When parents set a tone of emotional safety and love, it provides the space kids need to feel guilty about their own behavior. It takes away the defensive posturing kids tend to make when someone is mad at them. So if you have a child who struggles with defensiveness, blaming or lying to get out of trouble, give that child some graceful space. You may just find that child becomes less blaming and defensive, and more remorseful and repentant.
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