How to Manage Defiant Behavior

10 Ways to Respond When Your Child Refuses to Listen

Non-compliance is a common behavior problem among children.

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At one point or another, nearly all children will dig their heels in, look at their parents, and respond with an emphatic "No!" when they have been told to do something. As frustrating as that can be to hear, non-compliance can be part of a healthy child's development.


When children test limits or assert themselves, they are trying to be more independent. And while budding independence is healthy, an ongoing pattern of defiance is not. 

Whether your children say, "You can't make me!” when you tell them to pick up their toys, or they pretend they cannot hear you when you tell them it is time to come inside, taking appropriate action will motivate them to start listening better. Here are ten steps to dealing with non-compliance.

Give Positive Attention

Non-compliance can be a great way for kids to get lots of attention. Even though it is negative attention, some kids crave it anyway. In fact, one study found that ignoring non-compliant behavior was effective in getting kids to be more compliant.

Another way to ward off the attention-seeking behavior of non-compliance was to give your child daily doses of positive attention. Play a game together, spend time talking, or go for a walk. Just a few minutes of positive attention can go a long way to reducing defiance.

Praise Compliant Behavior

While it can be hard to notice good behavior when your child is constantly refusing to listen, it is important to find good behaviors to praise. You may even have to give your children some simple requests for the sole purpose of praising their compliance

At the dinner table, you might say, “Please hand me the pepper." Then, as soon as they comply say, "Thank you for handing the pepper to me right when I asked you to." This compliment or praise sends the message that you appreciate their compliance.

Give Effective Instructions

Make sure the defiant behavior you are witnessing is actually defiance. If your children do not hear you, or they are too distracted playing their video games or using their phone, you may need to change how you give directions.

Establishing eye contact or putting a hand on their shoulder will help you get their attention before you speak. Turn off the background noise and make sure your kids are paying attention so they can absorb what you are telling them to do. 

Offer Specific Choices

One of the best ways to combat defiant behavior is to offer two choices. When you offer choices, your kids feel like they have some control over the situation. Avoid questions like, "Do you want to get dressed now?" because a defiant child will automatically say, "No!"

Ask questions like, “Do you want to wear your red shirt or the yellow shirt?” Just make sure you can live with your child's choice before providing options.

Use Grandma's Rule of Discipline

Grandma’s Rule of Discipline, which frames things as incentives rather than pointing out negative consequences, can be one of the best ways to encourage compliance. When used regularly, children begin to see that they have some control over when they earn their privileges.

So instead of saying, "You can't play your video game because you haven't cleaned your room," try saying, "You can play your video game as soon as you are done cleaning your room." That slight change in your message can motivate your child to get to work. 

Create a Reward System

Create a reward system that gives your child an incentive to be compliant. Provide frequent positive reinforcement and consider creating a token economy system to keep your child on track. This is a form of behavior modification that works to encourage healthy, cooperative behaviors by offering positive reinforcers (or rewards).

For example, children are rewarded with a token each time they listen to your instructions without arguing. Then, they exchange tokens for bigger rewards like time with their electronics or an opportunity to go to the park. 

Develop a Behavior Contract

Behavior contracts remind children that they can earn more privileges once they show they can behave responsibly. An effective behavior contract helps children demonstrate when they are ready for more privileges.

For example, when bedtimes are a battle, the behavior contract might address this issue. In the contract, provide the option of staying up 15 minutes later after children show that they can go to bed on time for one week without arguing.

Avoid Power Struggles

Avoid getting into a power struggle with a non-compliant child. When you fight for power, it will only make the defiance worse. Instead, use a warning such as an if…then statement to turn the behavior around.

Offer one warning only and follow through with consequences when necessary.

It is really important not to waver on your if-then statements. If you do, it will just encourage more defiance because they do not think anything will really happen if they defy you.

Use Logical Consequences

Each instance of non-compliance should be addressed with a negative consequence. A time-out, or a logical consequence such as a loss of privileges, are effective ways to discourage defiance. Remember, consistent discipline is the key to reducing defiant behavior.

Seek Professional Help

Although extreme defiance can signal a more serious problem, such as oppositional defiant disorder, occasional defiance and non-compliance are normal child behavior problems. If you are concerned that your child may have a more serious problem, or if your discipline strategies are not working, talk to your child's pediatrician about getting professional help.

In addition to looking for an explanation for the behavior, your child's doctor may be able to offer suggestions for parenting classes or workshops that can help you hone your skills.

A Word From Verywell

It is easy to get angry and frustrated when your child defies you. But it's important to remind yourself that in most cases defiance and non-compliance are child behavior problems that every parent experiences from time to time. With a little patience and the right discipline strategies, you can guide your children on how to make the right choices while reducing the amount of defiant behavior you experience from them.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Scott HK, Jain A, Cogburn M. Behavior Modification. In: StatPearls. 2021.

  3. Sukhodolsky DG, Smith SD, Mccauley SA, Ibrahim K, Piasecka JB. Behavioral interventions for anger, irritability, and aggression in children and adolescents. J Child Adolesc Psychopharmacol. 2016;26(1):58-64. doi:10.1089/cap.2015.0120

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By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.