What to Do About Defiance: Using Levels of Response to Connect

Image via Flickr by susanjanegolding

Image via Flickr by susanjanegolding


The question I get asked most as an Empowered to Connect Parent Trainer for adoptive/foster families is: “How do I deal with my kid’s behavior?”

When responding to kiddos who have come to us through foster care/adoption, we must set aside traditional forms of parenting. In place of traditional parenting, we need some new tools. One super effective tool is using different levels of engagement, or Levels of Response.

As parents, we are often tempted to go after a gnat with an elephant gun. We have a giant response to a little behavior. Or we try a “one and done” approach. We think if we are angry or loud enough, the child will never engage in that sort of behavior again. Neither of these tools is effective in parenting kids who have had trauma.

Being in Sync With Your Child’s Needs

One of the most important aspects of being a parent is being in sync with our kids. Another word for this is attunement. In order to parent effectively, we need to be in sync with our children’s physical and emotional needs.

You know your child better than anyone else does. You know how much your child can handle. When he is on the verge of a meltdown, ask yourself some questions: Is he hungry? Is he tired? Has he had too much sensory input? Is he dehydrated? Is he emotionally spent?

We tell our kids to take a deep breath when they feel overwhelmed. As parents, we need to take our own advice and breathe deeply before responding to a behavior. Instead of jumping in with an off-the-cuff response, take the time to think about what’s really going on:

  • What is the behavior saying?

  • What does my child need?

Needs vs Wants

When one of my kiddos was four, every day after lunch, she fell on the floor crying, “I don’t need a nap!” As a friend of mine said to her one day, “Thanks for punctuating your need for a nap.” Pretty sure the punctuation was an exclamation mark.

Let’s set aside the idea that we need to make our kids happy. That’s not our job. Our job is to meet their needs, whether the child is in agreement or not. My daughter needed a nap every day, and she took one. Although she objected, she actually went to sleep quickly and woke refreshed and ready to go. (Disclaimer: this will not be true of every kiddo. The point is that if you know your child needs something, it’s your job as a parent to make sure that need is met.)

Levels of Response

As my daughter’s response illustrates, you and your kiddos won’t always be on the same page about what they need. So what do you do when your child talks back or flat-out refuses to follow your instructions? How do you respond to defiance?

The answer is, it depends. Remember, we want to avoid going after a gnat with an elephant gun — and that means matching your response to your child’s challenge. To do this, I recommend following the Levels of Response model developed by Dr. Karyn Purvis. When your child pushes back, meet them where they are with an efficient, proportional response.

Try a Level 1 response first, escalating to the higher levels only as needed.

Level 1 - Playful Engagement

When the child is mouthy and disrespectful, the response from the parent should be playful and warm.

Say things like:

  • “Are you asking or telling?”

  • “Do you want to try that again with respect?”

I often tell parents that when your kids are mouthy/disrespectful, you must become the world’s greatest actor/actress. All of those feelings of self-righteous anger must be quelled so that you can respond pleasantly.

At level 1, the child is still connected to the adult. The child is flexible. He can still be redirected. If we respond in anger, we kill the connection.

If the child listens and asks properly or tries again (we call this a re-do), reward him with a smile and a “good job.”

If the child pushes back verbally or physically, you move to a level 2 response.

Level 2 - Structured Engagement

Get down on the child’s level.

Use choices. Put up two fingers and say, “You have 2 choices, you can either ________, or ________ .” Example: “You can either walk to the car, or I will carry you.”

Your tone should be a bit more authoritative. Speak slowly.

Give the child time to think about it. If the child doesn’t choose and mouths off, pushes back, or yells, move to level 3.

Level 3 - Calming Engagement

At this point, your child’s heart rate may be elevated. His pupils will dilate. You must speak slowly. Your tone will give nonverbal cues. Right now, how high the bar is set depends on what the child can bear.

Do a time-in. Sit the child in close proximity to you. Have the child sit there until he says he is ready to talk about his actions. The child must say “I’m ready.”

In this response, time is co-regulating for the child when he can’t regulate on his own. Sitting close to him is like being a kickstand on a bike. You support him so he can balance and regulate.

At this point, walk the child through what he did wrong using as few words as possible (8 to 12 is the general rule). Make sure the conversation is about the behavior, not about the child.

Go back to the scene of the crime. Go back to where the incident happened and walk the child through a re-do. Coach as much as he needs it. Don’t ask for perfection. Don’t seek control. Seek connection.

If the child cannot do the redo or responds in a violent fit, move to level 4.

Level 4 - Protective Engagement

When a child becomes violent, you must step in and stop it.

If a child has a habit of violence and is a danger to himself and others, research laws and best practices in your state. Find someone who can work with your child and understands the effects of trauma.

You may have a child who is violent with your family. Adults must provide safety for all family members, not just one. Say things like, “I will hear your words, not violence.” (Violence can be hitting, spitting, etc. — you fill in the blank.)

The End Goal

Adults must set clear boundaries for acceptable behavior. It’s our job as parents to help our child regulate and regain emotional control.

When your child has become dysregulated, you are not finished until the child is reconnected with you. It’s not enough just to talk to a child, discipline them, and walk away. You must reconnect and reassure your child that they are loved and valued.

Keep in mind that the Levels of Response do not always follow a linear path. You have to play it by ear. Your goal is not only to gain compliance but also for the child to feel successful. Some kids are so fragile they can’t handle any disappointments. Be gentle and state expectations clearly.

At the end of the discipline/encounter (or whatever you like to call it), the goal is for three things to be true:

  1. Behavior has been changed or corrected.

  2. The child is more connected to you than they were before.

  3. The child is content because they have succeeded.

Helping Kids Understand

One practice to help your child understand terms like asking vs telling, re-dos, expectations, and respect is to practice with hand puppets. Try the acting out the wrong way and then the right way. Kids love it. Practicing both gives the child an fun and easy way to learn what the expectation is.

Think your child is too young to understand terms like this? The other day, my daughter and I brought her three little ones inside after playing outdoors. While removing her shoes, three-year-old Moira said, “What’s the expectation now?” Her parents had been using this term with her, and she knows it means “What am I supposed to do next?” or “What am I  allowed do right now?”

For more information about Levels of Response and the IDEAL Response they are part of, check out this short video by Dr. Karyn Purvis:


About the Author: Kathleen Guire is a certified Empowered to Connect Parent Trainer and author of Positive Adoption. She is also the primary writer behind The Whole House. You can read her full bio here.