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Defiant Behavior: What's Happening in the Brain?



When a child displays defiant behavior, it can feel baffling and challenging for parents. Oppositional and defiant behavior can also be a sign of oppositional defiant disorder, which is a behavioral disorder marked by regular and severe disruptive and inappropriate behavior. The first step to managing defiant behavior in your child or teen is understanding what's happening in their brain. Once you understand the science behind what's happening, you can move forward in helping them to better cope with their feelings and manage their behavioral responses.

Impaired Fear and Punishment Reactivity

Studies show that kids who display defiant behavior may have a different reaction in their brain and body as a reaction to stress, fear, and punishment when compared to children who don't display defiant behavior. Children with ODD show altered cortisol activity in the brain when they're stressed and abnormal levels of serotonin and noradrenaline, which means that punishments may have a different effect on them. This difference in reactivity in the brain causes them to respond differently to punishment and the negative effects of behavior. This can result in being less responsive to rewards and punishments and may make them more likely to act out without fearing any repercussions.

A Tendency Towards Differences in Sensitivity and Stimuli in Our Environment

Many kids who display regular misbehavior may experience sensory stimuli differently. Some kids feel things too much, and loud noises or touch may be extremely overwhelming and even stressful. Other kids have a nervous system that is less sensitive to outer stimuli, and they may regularly seek sensory activities to give them some kind of experience or reward. Sensory seeking activities may seem like "acting out" or "risk-taking behavior," when they are simply looking for a more stimulating experience, or they are looking for sensory soothing.

Deficits in Impulse Control

Research shows that children with ODD have trouble controlling impulses and emotional behavior. Scientists believe that these children may have underdeveloped prefrontal cortexes—or, the part of the brain that is in charge of executive functioning and managing impulsive behavior. It's actually biologically more difficult for them to manage their emotional reactions and the behavior associated with those reactions, and managing defiant behavior may take extra work and practice. The development of our pre-frontal cortex begins when we're very young and continues into our mid-twenties. For some kids this area develops later, creating a brain less able to contain and control emotions and behavior.

If you have a child who regularly exhibits defiant behavior, this may be a sign of immaturity in aspects of development. Behaviors may be a sign that your child is experiencing sensory stimuli or impulse control immature for their age.  An assessment at one of our centers can help to identify the area of immaturity and create a plan to impact this, resulting in a child who is more able to control behaviors, leading to a more successful academic and personal life. In fact, Parents saw a 43% improvement, on average, in their child’s behavior following the completion of the Brain Balance program.* Contact us today!

*Results based on a parent evaluation form filled out pre and post-program where the parents ranked a set of statements about their child, on a scale from 0-10 (0=not observed/does not apply and 10=frequently observed). Statement: Child is argumentative, oppositional or uncooperative at home – 43% improvement for median student (2015-2018 data for 4,284 students where parents reported this issue).

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