Let’s be honest for a minute.
There is a large part of your brain, as a parent, whose only job is to keep you and your family from descending into chaos and peril. Your ears can now hear the sound of furniture scratching the floor, the quiet scribble of a crayon on the wall, the sigh of a grumpy relative, or even the eerie silence of a child quietly making a very regrettable choice. You remember things like sunblock, permission slips, and upcoming birthday invites. You look both ways before crossing, you read ingredient lists, and you can now operate an Epipen, just in case.
This system hums along on high-alert until it is needed, then a red flag pops up and you alert your child to the danger: possibly a water glass too close to the edge of the table, the risks of pulling on the dog’s tail, or the long-term consequences of poor dental hygiene.
Okay, well done, you’ve leaped to the rescue and the crisis is averted, but for some reason, your child doesn’t seem to appreciate the effort you’ve made. In fact, he or she seems downright annoyed.
For some reason, when we ask our children to stop, slow down, or fix a mistake, they very rarely say: “Wow, I see what you mean. Thanks for pointing that out”
Of course, I could be wrong, and if your kids have mastered the art of responding to constructive feedback, I recommend that you close this browser window immediately and please go and write your own blog or instructional manual, because you are clearly doing something RIGHT and we all need to know about it.
For the rest of us… let’s stay here a minute and compare notes.
No one likes making mistakes, or having mistakes pointed out to them.
Most children will not react with fits of gratitude when their behaviour is corrected, but if all goes well, they may mumble the words “Okay” and adjust their behaviour to fit the rule. Often, they will shrug, resist a little, or simply ignore, but after some negotiation, the adult message gets communicated: “Please fix this behaviour. Thank you.” Life goes on.
However, some children are very sensitive to being corrected. You might say that these children don’t accept feedback graciously, or you might use words like “defiant” or “oppositional” to describe the way they respond. In any case, it’s awkward at best, and offensive at worst.
Refusing correction a.ka. “Sassing back”
Here are some of the examples of “defiant” reactions I have heard:
“SO WHAT!?” “Blah blah blah.” “It’s YOUR FAULT.” “No, I didn’t do anything.” “How was I supposed to know that?”
“OK, WHATEVER.” “I don’t care.” “It doesn’t matter anyway.” “I don’t have to listen to you.”
“You’re not the boss of me!” “Shut up, IDIOT.” “OH MY GOSH! YOU DON’T HAVE TO SAY THAT TO ME!”
“Yeah yeah yeah.” “This is NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS.” “THIS SUCKS!”
“Um… What?” Managing your reaction to defiant behaviour
First of all, no. It’s perfectly understandable for you, as a parent to be offended by this kind of talk. It’s not respectful. It’s not appropriate. It’s not even accurate. You might feel hurt, stunned, furious, or exasperated, and that’s normal.
BUT, I’m here to tell you, as a parent and as a behaviour analyst, that your first emotional reaction is probably not the one you want to run with. What comes out of your mouth next is probably going to add fuel to the fire, so if you do open your month, stop and take a deeeeep breath. Take a few more.
Good. Okay. Here’s my best advice: treat this moment like water off a duck’s back. Trying to correct a child because he or she refuses to be corrected is an exercise in extreme frustration, and I don’t recommend it. Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, and we can fix this problem when everyone has had a chance to cool down. This is where many people tend to go overboard trying to correct or control the problem of rude communication, each trying to “force” the other to back down. We’re not going there today.
How do you correct a child who refuses to admit fault?
Let’s look at the other side of the story.
Children who are extra-adventurous, expressive or independent probably hear dozens of corrections or critical remarks every day. They hear it from their peers, from their teachers, and from members of the family:
“Don’t do that!”
“Um, aren’t you going to finish your work?”
“Why are you holding that?”
“Hey, we’re going to be late. You’re distracted.”
“WHAT ON EARTH ARE YOU DOING TO THE CAT?”
“That is NOT OKAY. You need to stop right now.”
Not only that, but adults don’t always set the best example when it comes to accepting feedback.
Is it feedback, or is it whining, complaining, nitpicking, and back-talk?
Right? Sometimes we listen and apologize, but just as often, we argue, we make counter-accusations, or we shrug it off. This is ESPECIALLY true when the feedback is coming from our own children.
Of course, our children don’t always offer the most reasonable or tactful feedback, but they do make their opinions known, and very often, we are not thrilled to hear unfavourable dinner reviews, complaints about bedtime, or reminders about what we forgot to pack in their backpacks. In fact, we would much rather they keep those opinions to themselves.
See the problem yet? We want our kids to accept feedback from us, but we would STRONGLY prefer not to get feedback from them.
Here’s the part where I take off my behaviour analytic hat for a minute, and just say what I’ve noticed about humans:
Criticism hurts. Frequent negative feedback can provoke resistance and resentment.
No one wants to play a game they can’t win.
Shame can sometimes look like anger and hostility.
Unfortunately, angry and hostile behaviour tends to attract more criticism and negativity, and the cycle just goes on.
If no one is winning the game, then it’s time to change the rules
When the atmosphere starts to get really toxic like this, it’s so common to see families trying to use punishment or control to force a polite response. Unfortunately, it’s also really common to see this approach backfire spectacularly, with more anger and criticism on both sides.
So, how do you get out of this cycle of criticism and attack?
Here’s the beautiful thing: you don’t have to give any instructions or set any new rules to get started.
The change starts with you.
Disrupting defiance by setting a gentle example
First, think really carefully about your voice and your body language when you point out a child’s mistake. This is tricky because you are very often stressed, startled or deeply frustrated in that moment, but you can train yourself to slow down and take a breath first.
Remember: people mirror each other. When you use a soft, gentle voice, your child is much more likely to match your tone. Using a soft voice will also help you choose softer words.
Here’s one more key message you need to carry with you, especially when your children have been defensive and hostile to feedback: everybody makes mistakes, and that’s okay. When you give a correction gently, with love and acceptance, you’re letting your child know that there’s no need to be defensive. It’s safe to admit fault. You’re also modelling how to give feedback without teasing, attacking or complaining, and this is going to be very important when it comes your child’s turn to point out a problem.
Accepting feedback (including criticism, blame and whining) without getting defensive
Now, think about how you react when someone points out a potential mistake (even if they are completely and utterly off-base!) Do you deny it? Blame others? Come back with a complaint of your own? If so, don’t be embarrassed; it’s completely normal, but it’s probably not setting the example you want your child to follow.
Remember: you are teaching your child how to react to criticism.
If you’ve actually made a mistake, then you have a perfect opportunity to teach your child what it looks like to own up! There’s no shame in saying “Oh, that’s right! I definitely made a mistake there. Sorry about that.” It might feel uncomfortable to respond this way, especially if you are used to hearing criticism piled on criticism, or if you have a tendency to beat yourself up. You might find it handy to remind yourself out loud: “Oh well. It’s okay. Everybody makes mistakes.”
But what if your child is complaining about something that isn’t actually “wrong”?
What do you say to the accusation that you haven’t been sufficiently helpful, or the colour of the shirt you provided is a complete disaster? I’ve found that this phrase helps me to react without getting defensive: “It sounds like you think I made a mistake. Want me to explain why I did that?”
Accepting feedback as a family habit
Once you’ve taken these first steps, you should see some improvement in your family’s willingness to hear feedback and accept mistakes. Your example is POWERFUL.
You don’t have to stop there. You can invite your family to try it out too.
I noticed that my own family was really struggling to give and accept feedback, because each of us was sensitive about being corrected in our own ways. I wanted to send a big message about taking responsibility, and treating each other’s mistakes with kindness, so I suggested a game.
Perfectionism. Nit-picking. Criticism. Defensiveness. Defiance. Blame.
This kind of toxicity makes it really hard to get along.
I designed this for my family, as a reminder for each of us. We all have a role to play in helping each other follow the rules, and in taking responsibility when we make mistakes.
The kids had been asking us to buy some water guns, and we agreed that we would all work together to practice accepting mistakes, then earn the water guns as a family activity. It was important for *everybody* to get on board, so I made sure to give points to both parents and children for gently pointing out mistakes, and for listening to feedback without counter-attacking.
We made sure to practice and demonstrate before starting, and I noticed an immediate change in the mood in our house. Every mistake was an opportunity to be kind and accept responsibility, and fortunately, we all made plenty of mistakes by the end of the day.
If you need to actually see and hear it to understand it, I’m more than happy to coach you through a problem-solving process that is specific to you and your family. It’s much easier to find a solution when you know what clues to look for, so we can talk through your child’s specific strengths and needs.
Let’s find some time to talk (for free) and I’ll share what I’ve learned.