Effective Ways to Handle Defiant Children

defiant young boy covering his ears while annoyed mother looks on

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The question of how to handle defiant children is something most parents have struggled with at one point or another. Defiance in children is a common problem, especially in toddlers and adolescents. It's a normal part of a child’s development and can be expressed in behaviors such as talking back to or disobeying parents, teachers, and other adults.

Among school-age children, defiance will more likely take the form of arguing or not doing something you asked—or doing it very, very slowly—rather than a full-out tantrum (which is more likely to occur in younger children). Your child may be trying to exert control over a situation or declare their independence. They may be testing limits. Or they may be expressing dislike for a task like doing their chores.

When Defiance Isn’t What It Seems

In some cases, what appears to be defiance may simply be a child who's dawdling because they are so focused on an activity. Understanding what's behind your child’s behavior is an important part of addressing the problem.

Defiant behavior that persists for a prolonged period of time and interferes with a child’s performance at school and their relationships with family and friends can be a sign of something called oppositional defiant disorder, or ODD.

In children who have ODD, defiance is characterized by behaviors, such as temper tantrums or aggression, that often seem inappropriate for a child’s age. Children who have ODD may also exhibit other problems such as depression, anxiety, or ADHD. If you suspect that your child may have ODD, consult your child’s doctor or school counselor to get help and information.

How to Manage Defiance in Children

If your child's defiance is not at the level of ODD, nor affected by some other underlying concern, there are ways to work on improving the behavior.

Set Expectations

Make sure that you've been clear enough about the rules and chores of the house, and that they are age-appropriate. A five- or six-year-old may find it overwhelming to be told to clean their room, and therefore refuse to do it. They may be able to do the job better if you break it down into smaller tasks, such as picking up toys off the floor and helping you put them away.

Get to the Root of the Behavior

Look for causes and triggers and try to keep track of your child’s defiance. Is there a pattern? Are there certain specific things they don't like or want to do? Are they defiant when things are hectic or hurried? Once you investigate the cause, you can take steps to adjust situations so your child is less apt to oppose you.

Set your Child Up for Good Behavior

Try to avoid situations in which a child may be more likely to be defiant or exhibit other bad behavior. For instance, if you know your child tends to get cranky if he has too much on his plate, try not to schedule too many things after school or on the weekends. If your kid hates abrupt transitions, try to allow a bit of extra time when you go from one thing to another.

Treat Your Child As You'd Want to Be Treated

Just as grown-ups do, your normally well-behaved child can have an off day. They may be in a bad mood, or feeling overwhelmed and needing some downtime. Be firm about what your child must do, but speak to them in a loving and understanding manner. When you set a good example of how to express an opinion or disagree in a loving and respectful manner, your children will follow.

Take Advantage of Your Child's Verbal Skills

Parents of school-age children have a distinct advantage over parents of toddlers when it comes to dealing with behavior such as defiance: They can talk it out. Calmly discuss with your child what they want, and then try to work out a solution that works for both of you.

Establish Absolute Ground Rules

Make sure your child knows your family rules. For instance, if talking in a disrespectful manner is an absolute no-no in your house, make it clear that there will be consequences for it—no compromises or second chances. Be sure to choose a consequence you're willing to enforce, such as no TV for the rest of the day or doing an extra chore, so your child doesn't ignore your requests and undermine your authority.

Compromise When You Can

Is your daughter insisting on wearing her pretty summery skirt on a cold fall day? Rather than engaging in a battle, try to come up with a compromise, such as asking her to wear tights or leggings with the skirt. Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to give in when your child wants to exert control over something minor so that you can stay firm when it comes to the bigger stuff.

Discuss Options

Sometimes, a child may exhibit defiant behavior because they want more say in when or how they do things. One way to help children feel like they have more control is to give them choices. For example, once you set up the parameters—“The toys must be put away”—work out with your child when they will do the task. For instance, toys can be put away any time before bed.

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  1. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Oppositional defiant disorder. Updated January 2019.

  2. Ghosh A, Ray A, Basu A. Oppositional defiant disorder: Current insightPsychol Res Behav Manag. 2017;10:353‐367. doi:10.2147/PRBM.S120582

  3. Danforth JS. A flow chart of behavior management strategies for families of children with co-occurring attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and conduct problem behavior. Behav Anal Pract. 2016;9(1):64-76. doi:10.1007/s40617-016-0103-6

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