You’ve tried everything to change your defiant child’s behavior – yelling, time-outs, privilege removal, and grounding, but nothing works.
You are constantly fighting with your kid. Their behavior gets worse, and your relationship with them deteriorates every day.
You might sometimes question the reasons for becoming a parent and if this is the family life you envisioned.
What Is Defiance?
Defiance is a behavior characterized by refusing to obey rules, listen to grownups, or comply with requests, especially from parents or other authority figures. It can manifest in various ways, such as talking back, arguing, breaking things, or ignoring instructions.
Extreme defiance can be a symptom of underlying emotional or behavioral issues, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), disruptive behavior disorder, conduct disorder, or mood disorders.
However, the majority of children show some form of defiance. It does not necessarily indicate a disorder.
How To Handle A Defiant Child
Defiant children can frustrate parents. Most likely, you have already tried all the traditional parenting tactics but failed, or worse, they backfired.
Make Your Choice
If I had said, “I’m the authority on parenting, so you must listen to what I say here,” does that make you feel more compelled to follow my advice?
I bet it doesn’t.
You probably would have stopped reading and left immediately if I had said that.
That’s exactly how your child feels when you tell them to listen to you because you are the authority, the parent, the one who feeds them, or the one who pays for their cellphone plan.
No one likes to be threatened, controlled, or forced to do things1.
The approach to parenting a defiant child often comes down to two options:
- Continue looking for ways to change the child so they will listen.
- Or build a good relationship first, and then they will care about things you care about.
Generally speaking, the second option is not fast, and the results are not immediate. Thus, most parents opt for the first option.
But are you getting results in the long term with that method?
The first choice does not only fail, but it also damages your relationship, making it harder and harder to get your child’s cooperation.
Parenting a defiant child effectively begins with prioritizing relationship-building over obedience.
What You Think Is What You Get
Researchers have found that parents who attribute defiant behavior to the child’s negative personality or intention tend to be more upset and use harsher discipline, which can lead to more misbehavior2.
When you assume your strong-willed child is deliberately defiant, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and a vicious cycle.
Defiant behavior is a complex result of biology, genetics, and environmental factors. As of now, scientists are not sure what is the single biggest factor causing it.
Whenever children become angry, which they legitimately do when yelled at, they react with a fight-or-flight reaction. Their critical thinking is practically shut off by anger, which prevents them from thinking clearly. They can’t control it.
Defiant child behavior can’t be planned when they’re incapable of thinking.
The good news is the parent of a defiant child has the power to change this for the better if they can believe this is not malicious or intentional.
Have confidence that you can positively change this and create a loving, respectful family.
Set aside feelings of anger, guilt, shame, or frustration. Accept this as a challenge you can overcome, not an obstacle.
A positive attitude can make a big difference in your interaction with your child and how they react to you.
Kill defiance with your kindness
Have you ever been in an irritable mood, shouted at a stranger, and then been surprised by the stranger’s warm smile? Your anger melted away, and you even felt guilty about your rude behavior.
That is reciprocity. You felt obligated to repay kindness when someone showed kindness to you.
Reciprocity is natural in children, too3.
Respond to your child with calm and kindness to beat their defiance.
If adult requests are met with defiance, try these ideas.
“I see that you’re upset. What can I do to help you feel better?”
“I’m so sorry that you’re upset. It sounds like my request has made you angry. Can you tell me more about it?”
“It seems like you really don’t like to be interrupted when playing video games. That must be frustrating when I stopped you in the middle of it. Can we talk about how I can get your attention the next time I need something urgently from you?”
“I can tell you don’t like me bringing up your school performance. I am sorry that upsets you, but I want to help you.”
Stop The Escalation
Your child may not be softened immediately when you kindly respond to their rage.
It’s possible that you will get some answers you don’t like, such as, “You can help me feel better by disappearing.”
Here again, you have two choices:
- You can get angry and escalate the situation by exchanging angry words.
- Or you can stop the escalation.
Power struggles, arguments, and escalation only happen when there are at least two participants. If you don’t participate, there will be no argument.
Therefore, if you want to stop this and get back to your goal of relationship-building, you can take the first step.
How you speak to your child matters.
You can stop the escalation by using a softer tone, carrying non-threatening body language, showing more kindness, and trying to understand why they are so upset with you (it’s never about chores).
If you cannot control your anger in the heat of the moment, tell your child that you cannot continue the conversation and will discuss it later when you are both calm.
Leaving the conversation works 100% in stopping arguments or escalation. But you want to come back to it afterward to discuss this in a more positive tone.
Aim for cooperation, not compliance
Be someone who loves and protects your child, not someone who controls them.
It doesn’t mean you don’t discipline or teach them proper behavior.
It only means you don’t need to dominate someone to teach them.
Teach using reasons
Defiance occurs when a child does not see a reason for doing something. Oftentimes, this is because adults have not explained why this is necessary or why it matters enough for them to do it.
This is why the phrase “because I said so” is ineffective.
Saying you want something isn’t good enough when they don’t want to do what you ask.
Give them compelling reasons to do what you ask.
The best reasons are genuinely in the child’s best interests, such as their health or future.
“I want you to complete school work because I want you to learn, do well in school, go to college, and have a brighter future. I want you to live well and be happy.”
“Vegetables are good for your health. When you are healthy, you can do things you want to do and enjoy life.”
But reasoning only works well when you have a good relationship with your child.
Without a close relationship, your explanation will likely be met with, “I don’t care.”
Set clear expectations and reward your child with positive attention when they behave appropriately to teach them good behavior.
Parents can teach their children to meet expectations by focusing on positive behaviors while ignoring bad ones (that are not harmful).
Similar to reasoning, this parenting strategy may not work if you already have an ongoing pattern of conflict with your child.
It’s a good idea to work on building a positive relationship first, which will make this step work better.
Mutual Trust and Respect for Strong Relationship
Trust and Respect are paramount in building strong relationships with teenagers5.
Asking teenagers to prove they are trustworthy or earn their respect isn’t trusting or respectful on the parents’ part.
If parents want to have respect, they need to show respect first. If they want to have trust, they need to show trust first.
Any other way, you won’t gain real respect or trust.
You are the bigger person in this relationship. Make the first move, and you both can meet in the middle.
Families with defiant young children may benefit from parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT) taught by an experienced child therapist.
When offered during preschool years, this type of parent training is particularly effective since it improves relationships between children and parents and equips parents with coping skills6.
For families with school-age children, parent management training (PMT) can be effective.
A family therapist can help you if difficult situations arise, such as out-of-control behavior, threats, or behavioral disorders.
Mental health conditions can sometimes cause behavior problems. Screen your child for symptoms of ODD, anxiety disorders, and other mental health problems.
Parents of defiant kids with a more severe problem or frequent angry outbursts should also seek professional help as soon as possible, as early intervention is recommended7.
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- 2.Johnston C, Patenaude R. Parent attributions for inattentive-overactive and oppositional-defiant child behaviors. Cogn Ther Res. Published online June 1994:261-275. doi:10.1007/bf02357779
- 3.Fujisawa KK, Kutsukake N, Hasegawa T. Reciprocity of prosocial behavior in Japanese preschool children. International Journal of Behavioral Development. Published online March 2008:89-97. doi:10.1177/0165025407084055
- 4.Jones ML, Eyberg SM, Adams CD, Boggs SR. Treatment Acceptability of Behavioral Interventions for Children: An Assessment by Mothers of Children with Disruptive Behavior Disorders. Child & Family Behavior Therapy. Published online November 18, 1998:15-26. doi:10.1300/j019v20n04_02
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- 7.Steiner H, Remsing L. Practice Parameter for the Assessment and Treatment of Children and Adolescents With Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Published online January 2007:126-141. doi:10.1097/01.chi.0000246060.62706.af