What to do if your child is defiant?

What Causes Defiance?

Though motivated by the issue of defiance, many of these tips are applicable to everyday parenting, as every child needs a healthy dose of connection with you.

To understand your and your spouse’s parenting styles more, visit Self-Help Checklists.

Occasional vs Chronic Defiance

If your child generally cooperates but occasionally throws a fit or gives you an attitude—especially when s/he is stressed, tired, and upset—understand that the perfect child is a myth and give your child a hug when s/he is in a lousy mood.  However, if your child fights you for the sake of fighting you, says no to everything, and purposefully engages in behavior that s/he knows will upset you, such defiance is your child’s cry for help.

What’s behind chronic defiance?

There are two main reasons behind ongoing defiance.

One is that everyone, including our children, needs to feel a sense of control and agency.  When they feel they don’t have a say in much of anything, that can generate a lot of frustration and resentment, and with time, a child might resort to defiance as a way to reclaim a sense of personal power.

Another reason can be that the parent-child relationship is strained.  Without a strong relationship with you, your child will feel insecure, unsafe, and unloved.  Defiance is their way of getting your attention, a signal that they desperately want to reconnect with you.

Ways to meet the unmet needs

If you find yourself often at the end of giving instructions and your child at the end of receiving them, consider turning an instruction into an invitation to choose.  Instead of “have more vegetables,” try “would you like more broccoli or carrots?”  Instead of “it’s time to brush your teeth,” try “would you want to brush your teeth now or after the show?”  A choice involves a commitment to follow through with action.

If your relationship with your child is strained, the ramifications are many.  To feel reconnected to you, your child needs to feel heard and understood.  Listening empathically is the cornerstone of connection.

The DEAR approach is comprised of:

  • Detecting your child’s underlying emotions
  • Empathizing with their feelings
  • Asking questions out of compassion
  • Reflecting on what you hear
Click here to learn more about the DEAR approach to connection.

For younger kids, try these attachment-based activities to foster connection.

Other relationship maintenance tips

  • Make sure your child gets his/her one-on-one special time with you on a daily basis. It can be bedtime stories, building a castle together, playing a board game, or a special trip to get ice-cream.
  • Remember the ratio of negative (e.g., correction of behavior) to positive interaction (e.g., praise) should be 1 to 5.
  • Parents’ self-care: if you are not in a good emotional space, it will be very hard to connect with your child. It is essential that parents not lose sight of their own needs and turn to their spouse for support.  (Check out Parenting Printables for self-care tips.)

Defiance vs. Independence

Every child goes through moments where they want to rebel, to refuse to cooperate, and to say no to your requests, however reasonable those requests might seem to you.  After all, having a mind of their own and the ability to assert their own will are signs of healthy development.  The tricky thing is to find a balance between encouraging your child’s budding sense of independence and selfhood and promoting adequate social skills that help them thrive in a society where cooperation and compromise are key to school and work success.

An age-by-age guide on handling defiance

Related tips on successful parenting