Reframing Resistance in Children and Youth

The article below, by my colleague Umesh Acharya, helps us understand how resistance in children and youth, which we often see as negative, is actually one of their strengths. Read on to learn how to work with resistance in new ways.

Think about your middle or high school time when you felt heard or seen by an adult. What did they do to make you feel heard? How did it make you feel?

Now, think about a time you felt dismissed or misunderstood by an adult for sharing/showing big emotions. How did it make you feel? Did it strengthen or weaken your relationship with them?

Youth resistance, often viewed as defiance and/or rebellion, has long been misunderstood and dismissed by adults and youth-serving institutions. While we are busy viewing resistance through a negative lens, reducing its meaning to children’s/youth’s attempt to invite conflicts or their mere unwillingness to do better, we fail to acknowledge the underlying cause of resistance. Our children’s behaviors are signs of unmet needs, and it is essential to view resistance as a call for help – a signal to reveal what’s concealed behind their behavior. It is children’s way of communicating the need to feel heard, seen, respected, and belong.

Thus, we must reframe youth/child resistance and view it as an open invitation to collaborate with our children in creating a supportive environment for their overall growth and development. Approaching children and youth with empathy and understanding and collaborating with them, rather than judgment, is the first step in identifying the underlying needs behind resistance. When we practice asking what our children need instead of making assumptions, they feel empowered to voice their needs. By listening non-judgmentally and engaging with them to understand their perspectives, concerns, and feelings, we can gain insights into the causes of resistance.

When an infant cries, we don’t blame or dismiss them for being annoying. Instead, we feed them or check to see if the diaper needs to be changed or if they aren’t comfortable. We need to see resistance through the same lens – one that allows us to see ‘what else could be there.’

Reframing resistance demands a shift in our perception and actions. It involves seeing strength in resistance, considering contextual factors, recognizing unmet needs, and responding with understanding, openness, vulnerability, and empathy. Furthermore, marginalized children and youth, including BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, youth with disabilities, children and youth involved with the foster system, etc., often experience trauma, instability, behavioral challenges, and a lack of trust in systems and caregivers. That is why we must acknowledge and validate their feelings to truly foster a sense of trust, in addition to implementing strategies for overcoming their challenges.

Furthermore, we need to help/support our children/youth channel their resistance into constructive action: identifying specific issues or causes that resonate with their emotions. Reframing resistance helps us identify commitment and activism demonstrated by young individuals, which can catalyze change. Throughout history, youth-led resistance movements have changed the world for the better by standing up against systemic injustices and oppressive structures and amplifying the voices of the voiceless or those who’ve been silenced. Reframing resistance helps us see our children/youth as capable and competent beings who are letting us know about their unmet needs. Resistance is a form of resilience, so let us all come together to reframe resistance, honor strength in resistance, and identify and address needs causing resistance. In doing so, we let our children/youth know that their feelings matter, that we are on their teams, and together we can be in a better place.

The links below will help you put these ideas into practice.

Here’s an article by Holt International that offers three steps to reframing behavior: https://www.holtinternational.org/reframing-behavior/

In this post by PAVE, you’ll learn ways to better understand challenging behaviors and to help the child/youth work toward healthier behaviors: https://wapave.org/tips-for-parents-summer-provides-time-to-reinforce-positive-behaviors-at-home/

The Family Resource Center at the Child Mind Institute offers support regarding a wide variety of behaviors. Scroll down at this link for guides by topic area and parenting needs. https://childmind.org/resources/

We’d love to know in the comments what has helped you reframe a child or youth’s behavior, and what impact doing so has had on your relationships.

If you’d like more strategies and resources related to reframing resistance, please reach out to Umesh at uacharya@uvm.edu

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