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How to Handle Defiant Children

Effective ways to manage the common problem of defiance in children

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Mother and daughter (2-4) having tea and talking.
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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 young children in their toddler years and in adolescents. It is a normal part of a child’s development, and can be expressed in behaviors such as talking back or disobeying parents, teachers, and other adults.

Among school-age children, defiance will more likely take the form of arguing with you 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 declaring her independence. She may be testing her limits and your authority. She may be expressing her dislike for something you asked her to do, such as picking up her toys or doing her chores.

When Defiance Isn’t What It Seems

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

On the other hand, defiant behavior that persists for a prolonged period of time and interferes with a child’s performance at school and his relationship with family and friends can be a sign of something called oppositional defiant disorder, or ODD.

In children who have ODD, the defiance is characterized by behaviors such as temper tantrums or aggression that often seems 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, support groups, and other ODD resources to get help and information.

How to Manage Defiance in Children

Get to the root of his 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 that he does not like or want to do? Is he defiant when things are too hectic or hurried?

Also make sure that you have you been clear enough about the rules and chores of the house, and that they are age-appropriate so that your child can follow them. (For instance, a 5- or 6-year-old child may find it overwhelming to be told to clean his room, and may be able to do the job better if you break it down into smaller tasks, such as picking up his toys off the floor and helping you put them away.) Once you investigate the cause, you can take steps to adjust situations so that he is less apt to oppose you.

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

Treat your child as you would want to be treated. Just as with grownups, your normally well-behaved child can have an off day. He may be in a bad mood, or may be feeling overwhelmed and want some downtime. Be firm about what he must do, but speak to him in a loving and understanding manner. When you set a good example for how to express an opinion or disagree in a loving and respectful manner, your children will follow.

Take advantage of her verbal skills. Parents of school-age children have a distinct advantage over parents of younger kids when it comes to dealing with bad behavior such as defiance: They can talk it out. Discuss with your child what she wants, and then try to work out a solution that works for both of you.

Establish absolute ground rules. Make sure your child knows exactly what he must and must not do. For instance, if talking to you in a disrespectful manner is something that is an absolute no-no in your house, make it clear to your child that there will be consequences if he demonstrates that kind of behavior.

Compromise when you can. Is your child insisting on wearing her pretty summery skirt on a cold fall day? Rather than engaging in a battle, you may be able 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 be more firm when it comes to the bigger stuff.

Discuss options. Sometimes, a child may exhibit defiant behavior because he wants to have more say in when or how he does things. One way to help your child feel like he has more control over things is to give him some choices. For example, once you set up the parameters (such as, “The toys must be put away” or “Homework must be finished”), work out with your child when he will do those tasks (toys can be put away before bed or homework can be done after a snack or 30 minutes of free play, for instance).

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