How to Handle a Defiant Child: A Ten-Tip Special

by Dana Gerasimovich

Many parents struggle with defiant children. It is not uncommon for young children through adolescents to occasionally engage in disobedient behaviors. Parents may be overwhelmed with these behaviors and may be at a loss on how to handle defiance in their child. The following ten suggestions may be helpful for parents who want to better manage a child’s rebellious behavior.

1. Stay Calm!

Parents should not overreact to a child’s behavior. They should respond to a child’s actions in a calm way. Yelling, threatening, and other negative reactive responses will only escalate the situation. Parents set an example for their children. The more appropriate response will give the child opportunities to see and mirror appropriate responses to conflict.

2. Identify the Source of the Behavior

What is causing your child’s behavior? For example, your child may be in a bad mood because they had a rough day at school, or a conflict with a friend or classmate, or they just may not like to do a certain chore or task. Parents should look for patterns and triggers of behaviors to help them understand and address defiant acts. Sometimes, these behaviors are an indication of more serious conditions, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), depression, anxiety, or mood disorders. Although most children’s defiant behaviors are a normal part of the growing and learning process, it is important that parents identify the source of the behavior and seek professional help if this behavior is problematic and affects a child’s functioning.

3. Find Times to Speak with Your Child

Parents should always take time to talk with their child. Daily conversations can build the bond between parent and child. Parents can let the child know that they are there to support, protect, and guide them to grow and become independent and happy adults. Regular communication can also create an environment where a child feels comfortable expressing their feelings and concerns to parents who listen. Children become less defiant when they feel that they have a voice, and their parents have their best interest in mind.

4. Communicate What You Expect

Parents should express what they expect from a child. These expectations include chores, homework, and rules. If a child seems overwhelmed or stressed about completing tasks, help them make a schedule or to-do list to handle tasks in a manageable manner. If parents ensure children clearly understand reasonable expectations and how to achieve them, defiant behavior can be minimized.

5. Give Positive Attention

Often, a parent will give negative attention to bad behaviors. For example, a parent may give negative attention by scolding a child for not cleaning up their toys or completing their homework. On the other hand, good behavior is often overlooked. If defiant acts give a child the only attention that they seek, then it will be more challenging to change the behavior. It is important that parents acknowledge and give positive feedback for good behavior and engage in positive activities with their child, such as playing games, watching a movie, or playing a favorite sport. By giving positive attention, hopefully, a child’s defiant attention-seeking behavior will be reduced.

6. Emphasize Rewards

A good way to persuade your child to obey is by motivating them. For instance, instead of telling your child they cannot watch T. V. until they clean up, say that they can watch T.V. when they complete the task. Instead of feeling restricted when they are told they cannot do something, the child will feel encouraged, motivated, and less defiant when they know they will be rewarded when they complete a task.

7. Give Your Child the Opportunity to Make Choices

A child will feel they have more control over a situation if you give them options. For example, instead of telling your child to do their homework, you can ask them if they want to do their homework now or after they have a snack. The child will be focused on making a choice rather than saying ‘No’ to a request. It is important to note that the choices must be reasonable and more acceptable to both the parent and child. Also, the number of options should be limited to two or three. If the parent gives a young child too many choices, they may get frustrated and overwhelmed.

8. Consider Reasonable Compromise

Parents may be better able to avoid fights with their child if they consider compromising on small things, such as outfit selection, length of playtime, or when homework needs to be completed. By teaching a child how to cooperate and work with others to resolve a conflict, it will help them interact with others in a positive and productive way and lessen defiant behavior.

9. Be Consistent

It is important for a parent to be consistent when enforcing rules. If the child clearly understands the rules and the consequences of certain behaviors, a parent should not give the child multiple chances to do what was understood in the first place. Parents should also remain consistent in punishing any bad behavior. Also, both parents should be “on the same page” when addressing bad behavior. Consistency will help a child understand that they cannot “get away” with bad behavior.

10. Seek Help

Parents can, at times, be overwhelmed and frustrated with a defiant child. The child’s defiant behavior can impact parents and other family members. If things become too difficult, it can help for parents and children to speak to a therapist who can provide support and guidance. Individual and family therapy can be very beneficial for parents, children, and other household family members.

Raising a child can be parents’ most challenging and rewarding role. By taking some effective steps to handle defiant behavior, both parents and children can obtain long-term benefits. Children can grow to become happy, responsible, self-sufficient, and productive adults.

Suggestions for further reading:

  • Coloroso, B. (2001). Kids are worth it! Toronto: Penguin.
  • Harvey, P., & Penzo, J. A. (2015). Parenting A Child Who Has Intense Emotions. Old Saybrook, CT: Tantor.
  • Markham, L. (2013). Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. New York: Perigee Book.

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