Defiance in Families: Rebellion in the Name of Health

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Dave:  (What follows is an excerpt from Chapter One of Defiance in the Family: Finding Hope in Therapy , a book I wrote in 2001 with Gary and Linda Connell).

We are bombarded daily by examples of defiant children and adolescents out of control. This problem of “defiance” extends  to  all social classes, in every school and neighborhood, and it is often characterized in the media as  reaching epidemic proportions. Many of society’s responses to defiance only stimulate more defiance. For example, the impulse to punish, to exclude, to enact zero tolerance policies may be an error that adds to the problem. My co-authors and I  work with the idea that family therapy is a way to detoxify, to undermine the alienation that results from defiance. However, this is not a simple solution. It is a solution that takes more energy than punishment does. It takes more time and more investment than medicalizing problems, but we believe the change that comes from therapeutic work with families is more enduring.

Defiant adolescents and oppositional children are being demonized. How do we deal with demons? We provide structure and discipline so that they will stop being demons and become images-3more angelic. When structure and discipline works and angels emerge it is very pleasing. But we need not worry about the angels. We intend to worry about what to do when discipline only makes the demons more defiant. Our culture, looking backwards to some fantasied era follows simple principles. If they don’t behave, we extrude them, diagnose them, medicate them. We kick them out; of the school, the family, the inpatient unit, and look around for a human wastebasket where we can toss them, until they learn to behave.

The prevailing thinking is that those demons need “counseling.” “Send her to the counselor! Let’s get to the bottom of this!” The counselor says, “This kid doesn’t want to be here, so how can I help him?” Now what? We are for simple solutions when they work, but what about when they don’t work? It is possible that many of our solutions become part of the problem. “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” Don’t forget; use the rod and embitter the child; use the rod and wound the child.

We have many ways of distressing our intimates, especially children and spouses. One way is by making them responsible for carrying our hopes for the future. The other, more dangerous way is by identifying in them what we fear most in ourselves, then acting as though it has nothing to do with us.

We look at defiance as a byproduct of family interactions, and simultaneously a byproduct of the family’s interaction with the culture. The family serves several contradictory purposes. It teaches imagesits members, especially children, to adapt to the culture, it shields its members from the culture, and it teaches its members when not to adapt to the culture. But more important than demonizing the demon’s family, and throwing the whole thing in the human-sized wastebasket outside the walls, we work on ways to help families repair the problems that lead to defiance.

When the parent, the school and the counselor say, “He chooses to do these defiant things. He has to start making the right choices, or we are going to kick him out.” We respectfully disagree. The so-called “choices” are part of a pattern that includes irritated-to-outraged adults. The therapeutic process looks at the hidden or culturally invisible parts of the pattern.

What is “defiance”?

The dictionary is a helpful guide to understanding language, the organ system that enables interaction. Language is an organ system. “Defiance” is “bold resistance to an opposing force or authority; a deliberately provocative behavior or attitude.” But if we go further to the etymology of “defiance” we find it implies a renunciation of faith in, alliance or amity with. It represents a declaration of hostility against some entity. Defiance is a result of a collapse of fealty. “Fealty” is the duty and loyalty owed by a vassal or tenant to his feudal lord, or of a dependent person on their caretaker. “Fealty” refers to faith, loyalty and fidelity; it is synonymous with allegiance.

What we find fascinating, even though slightly tangential is that “defiance” comes from the same etymological root as “faith” and “fealty”.  If we look for “defiance” in the etymological dictionary, we are referred to “defy” (Partridge, 1966). Quoting loosely we find: to renounce a sworn faith, hence to remove one’s confidence from, to provoke or defy. Then, surprisingly, we are referred to “fidelity” and “fait”: faith, faithful, fidelity, and fealty, federal, federate, federation…….. fiancé, fiancée, confidant, confident, confidential. These are all words that have to do with trust and unity.

Then the ground shifts slightly to diffident, diffidence, which implies hesitance or a lack of self-confidence. Then, finally, we arrive at “defy, defiant, defiance”. And continuing leads to extremes; infidel, infidelity, perfidious, perfidy, having the implication of being disloyal and without faith. What is important here, in the linguistics of experience is that, faith and defiance are linked. Defiance emerges when faith is compromised. But we must emphasize that this collapse and reconstruction of faith and fealty is an inevitable component of family living. We believe that where there is caring, all pathology is sharing or repairing. But if the origins of the defiant behavior (collapse of fealty) are not considered and the process continues, it becomes treacherous and perfidious, the defiant one is morphed into the extruded infidel.

Unknown-1The family is a metaphorical forest of personal growth. That is to say, the complexity of any family is immeasurable and poetic. In order to know what is going on in a family it is necessary to enter a family, and the interior is much like a forest, the forest can be beautiful, treacherous or changeful. Likewise, the family is the arena for loss of faith and bold resistance, the collapse of fealty we call “defiance.” Defiance is disruptive and destructive, it urges a suppressing response. We view defiance as a call for repair, and while harshness is sometimes required, the salve of caring is always necessary. What is important in the linguistics of experience is that faith and defiance are linked. Defiance emerges when faith is compromised. We underscore that this collapse and reconstruction of fealty is an inevitable component of family living. If the origins of defiant behavior, collapse of fealty, are not considered and the process continues, it becomes treacherous and perfidious. The defiant one is morphed into the extruded infidel.

Defiance is a dance, but it is not one person dancing alone. Defiance is part of a multiple-person system of behavior. At extremes, the defiant one ends up in a parallel universe that has very different values from those held by the adults. When we talk about the need for the child to make the right choices, it is important to consider the fact that he is making choices based on experiential coordinates we don’t comprehend. Children do live in a parallel universe. When we try to enter it by recalling our own growing up, we still don’t approximate what our children are experiencing.

The more ways we have of looking at a complex problem like defiance, the better able we are to understand how to engage it. It is crucial to recognize that defiance does not just appear. Rather it represents a response to a disruption of faith, a collapse of fealty somewhere in the family system. There is a deterioration of the trust between child and parents that implicitly guarantees an environment of self-realization for all members. From an existential point of view, it refers to a situation where the “I” is not respected. Defiance is part of a correcting system; it is activated in order to provide correction but is easily distorted or over-amplified when there is poor response. The poor response may be overly repressive at one extreme, or non-existent on the other.

images-3There is a capacity for defiance in all of us, a fight or flight reaction, an instinctual response. When an individual’s or system’s integrity or dignity is threatened, when the threat is persistent or overwhelming, defiance protects the threatened boundaries. The threat may be real or perceived and may come from any authority figure such as a parent or teacher. For younger children the family usually experiences concern or discomfort with the child’s behavior and seeks help or advice.

In adolescence this behavior requires attention, not only because of family conflict, but as a result of complaints from other systems like the school. The outside systems pressure the family to seek help by threatening sanctions against the child or family, such as expulsion from school. When outside systems push referral, families may enter therapy angry and resistant. The therapeutic endeavor is to understand what purpose the defiance serves by getting beneath the underlying dynamics;  the fear of extrusion, the loss of faith. It is useful to keep in mind, however, that defiance begins as a self-protective function, a way to restore dignity or integrity.

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