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Rethinking youthful defiance

Fritz Redl

Fritz Redl (1902-1988) originated the life space model of therapeutic intervention with children who display angry and defiant behavior 1. His methods were honed by decades of direct work with highly aggressive youth. Redl observed that the same surface behavior could spring from very different underlying problems, thus requiring different interventions. In this classic article, Redl identified four distinct problems that could trigger defiant behavior 2. The four patterns he labeled have been validated by subsequent research: 1) “developmental defiance” is the normal quest for autonomy; 2) “defiance as a wrapping” is aggression secondary to mental disorders such as autism or depression; 3) “reactive defiance” is angry aggression; and 4) “the defiant ego” is instrumental aggression.

Some “defiance” is part of the normal growth process. It may even be a desirable though an uncomfortable forerunner of a character trait commonly referred to as “integrity” or “spine.” Other forms of defiance, however, do overlap with the kind of trouble usually referred to as “delinquency” and constitute a great strain on our communities.

What types of youthful defiance should be differentiated in order to begin wise preventive and therapeutic planning? We can differentiate a few of the outstanding problems that usually sail under this heading.

Developmental defiance
In spite of all the talk about “adjustment,” we would not really want children to “adjust” to everything all the time. If they did, we would think they lacked “spine.” Healthy development on the part of a child is fostered by strengthening not only his ability to adjust to outside demands but also his ability to defend his own integrity against wrong demands made by others. We want our children to retain the capacity for intelligent rebellion — courage to stick to what they believe in, even against strong-armed pressure and the fear of becoming unpopular with the mob.

All traits that we want eventually to see in our children must grow through a range of developmental phases. “Intelligent rebellion,” too, needs leeway to be learned and practiced. Of course, while being practiced, it often looks anything but intelligent and can be very annoying to the adult who has to live with it. The negativism of the child between three and five, as well as the strong “emancipation” efforts of the young adolescent, are normal phases in child development.

One of the nation’s greatest problems at this time is to find out how to help our young people stick to what they believe in, even in defiance of whatever opinion or action might be popular at the moment with the rest of the youthful crowd. Actually, a lot of behavior usually termed “defiance” is exactly the opposite. The 16-year-old who participates in an incident of vandalism because he is afraid of being called a sissy is not a defiant child. He is a coward, an over-conformist, a spineless lickspittle for public acclaim. Submission rather than defiance is the real problem at hand.

When behavior falls into the category of “developmental defiance,” it presents us with an educational challenge, but we must not be fooled into regarding it as “delinquency”.

Defiance as a wrapping
Some defiant behavior is quite clearly “unprovoked” or at least seems so at first sight. I once knew a child who, when compulsively hit by sudden intense spurts of fantasy images, would get up during class and wander around, impervious to threats of punishment. He seemed to do all this “just in order to spite authority” Yet nothing was further from the truth. At these moments, he did not even perceive the teacher’s presence nor that of the world around him. He had no thought of being “spiteful.” It would have been easier to help him if he had, for this child was out of contact with reality far beyond the normal degree of childish daydreaming. This sickness is worse than the usual “defiance.”

Defiance that comes as a “wrapping” around some other disease is especially frustrating because in such cases the techniques so often found helpful in dealing with other defiant children are totally ineffectual, and the adult’s wrath at the defiant behavior is apt to be increased by his fury at his helplessness. Punishment is the most futile and most damaging technique we could use. When defiance is a “wrapping,” the only thing to do is to tackle the disease behind the wrapping. All other efforts are useless.

Reactive defiance
Some youthful defiant behavior may be compared to the process of regurgitation. If you pour poison or stuff pins down somebody’s throat, his organism will probably rebel by choking reactions to ward off the hurtful intrusion. Vomiting under such conditions is not symptomatic of illness. On the contrary, it is the defense of a healthy organism against hurt from the outside.

A lot of youthful “defiant” behavior falls into the same category. It is not the outcropping of a corrupt or morbid personality, but the defense of a healthy one against the kind of treatment that shouldn’t happen to a dog but often does happen to children.

Such “reactive defiance” calls for consideration not only of what’s wrong with the child but also of what is wrong with what we are doing to him. Every case of really pathological and dangerous defiance that I have had a chance to study closely has had to do the wrong things consistently for a long time to the children involved to produce such severe degrees of disturbance. This means that one of our greatest preventive opportunities lies in developing and applying greater knowledge about the most advantageous setting for growing youngsters and in helping adults toward maximum wisdom in their reactions to youthful behavior.

The defiant ego
This, unfortunately, is the most neglected, although the most serious, form of defiance. Whereas from the outside it looks very much like other types of defiant behavior, at closer range it reveals itself as a most pernicious and serious affliction.

Children with “defiant egos” act destructively any time they so desire because they enjoy it. If they want their “fun,” they are going to have it. Either they have not developed those “voices from within” that would make them feel bad about “fun” that is unjustly had at somebody else’s expense, or they have developed very skillful tricks for putting those “voices” out of commission should they tend to interfere. Diagnosis, however, is not easy. The size of the offense or the intensity of the defiance gives no clue to what type of defiance is involved.

This is the type of affliction that may justifiably be classified as “delinquency,” even if the defiance displayed does not seem to have any “legal” implications. The early recognition of such afflictions and the determination of conditions for preventive and therapeutic work with them constitute some of the main themes upon which research is required today.

“Defiant” behavior by children seems to bring out the worst in adults, provoking them to react with their own feelings rather than with deliberate thought. The collective “suspicious antagonism” that communities often display against “teen-agers” as “caste and class” is likely to foster or increase a collective spirit of defiance among youth itself. The difference between failure and success depends on whether or not we gear our curative and preventive measures toward the type of affliction involved.

Fritz Redl, PhD, (1902-1988) was a native of Austria who received his early training in psychology and education from youth work pioneers August Aichhorn and Anna Freud. He came to the United States at the onset of World War II and taught for many years at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. Redl’s philosophy guided the University of Michigan Fresh Air Camp which for a quarter of a century trained professionals in work with troubled youth. He headed a research project on aggressive children at the National Institute of Mental Health. There he worked with Nicholas Long who is senior editor of the journal Reclaiming Children and Youth and creator of the Life Space Crisis Intervention training curriculum. Redl’s publications spanned 35 years and have been translated into many languages.

1. See Fritz Redl and David Wineman, Children Who Hate (New York. Free Press, 1951); and Redl and Wineman, Controls From Within (New York. Free Press, 1952). These books were consolidated in the 1957 book, The Aggressive Child (New York. Free Press).

2.This is excerpted from an article by Fritz Redl first appearing in the January-February 1955 issue of Children, published by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Social Security Administration, Children’s Bureau. It was reprinted as: Fritz Redl, “Our Troubles With Defiant Youth,” in When We Deal With Children, Selected Writings, pp. 409-417 (New York. Free Press, 1966).

For a discussion connecting Redl’s clinical concepts to current research, see Larry Brendtro and Mary Shahbazian, Troubled Children and Youth: Turning Problems into Opportunity (Champaign, IL. Research Press, 2004).

This feature: Redl, F. Rethinking youthful defiance. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 16, 1. 2007. pp. 33-35.