Dealing with a Defiant Child? Try These Tips!

Are you dealing with a toddler who stomps their feet, looks you in the eye and yells “no!” when you ask them nicely to pick up their toys or change out of their favorite pajamas before leaving the house? This is very normal for toddlers and young children since they are trying to test their boundaries with adults, learn which behaviors evoke which consequences, develop their own thoughts and opinions, and generally find their place in the world. 

What exactly does defiance look like? Defiance ranges and can look like many different things– from deliberately doing what you ask of them slowly so that it will evoke a reaction, to thrashing their fists and shouting “no!” at you. Having a young child who is occasionally stubborn in their own desires and opinions can be a good thing for their character and personal identity development. On the other hand, having a child who is stubborn and defiant a majority of the time can put stress not only on your relationship with your child, but on your family as a whole. Why is your child so defiant in nature and what can you do about it? Read on to understand why children are defiant, and learn ways that can help you help your child communicate their desires and opinions in more effective ways!

Why Are Some Children So Defiant?

Parents might see defiance simply as an issue of respect; their children don’t respect them enough, so the child’s bad behavior toward them is a result of disrespect. However, this usually isn’t the case. Children are defiant for many reasons.

It would be extremely rare for anyone to say that they never once had a moment of defiance between themselves and their parents– no eye roll at being told to take out the garbage, no moment of crying and folding your arms as a toddler being told to do something they were displeased with, no staying out a little past curfew just to see if you could test the boundaries a little bit. Of course, some children are more blatantly defiant, loudly telling their parents “no” when asked to do something, or even throwing a tantrum. Understanding why children are defiant is the first step to helping your child get what they want, but in a kinder and more effective way that can build the connection between the two of you instead of slowly chipping away at it. 

So, what are the main reasons why children are defiant?

1. Testing Boundaries.

First of all, it’s important to remember that defiance for your toddler is a natural part of growing up and learning about the world. Every child is defiant at times, and would you really want to raise a child that didn’t know how to stand up for themselves and their opinions and make everyone listen to what they have to say every once in a while? As an adult, that might look like someone who has wonderful ideas to contribute to make their workplace or work itself significantly better, but never shares them for fear of their ideas being rejected. Do we as parents, want to raise little ones who stand up for what they think is right, and use their voice when they don’t want to do something they’re being told to do, or someone who keeps quiet for fear of going against the grain? My guess is that your answer would be the former, so having a defiant child is not necessarily a bad thing!

Children can be naturally defiant because they are testing boundaries with authority, which, lucky for you, is you! This stage of life is important because your child can begin to understand that when you as a parent set boundaries, there are consequences when they are overstepped. Your child learns what those consequences are, and can internalize whether the consequences are worth performing the bad behaviors. This also prepares them for when they go to school or join sports teams, where they can understand their role as students and teammates and the expectation to treat their teachers and coaches with respect.

2. Unreasonable Expectations.

If your child feels that what you are expecting of them is too challenging, physically or emotionally draining, or they don’t feel that you ever respect their independence or individuality as a person, they might act out to show you that they feel overwhelmed or unappreciated for any effort they put into doing what you’ve asked of them in the past. It’s important to be sure that all of the things you expect for them to do as a whole is reasonable to ask of them, and that they feel confident that they can do it. 

For example, it might be unreasonable to ask a toddler to play independently with low supervision for a couple hours while you answer emails, and then ask them to get ready to go out to dinner by brushing their own hair and teeth, getting dressed appropriately, and be ready to get in the car with their favorite stuffed animal and only one book. Maybe for your toddler, this is a regular occurrence. For other young children, they might be craving one-on-one attention after a long independent play time, and find it overwhelming to have to get themselves ready all by themselves. This could create an explosive outburst of emotions from feeling overwhelmed, ultimately leading to defiance as a result. It’s important as parents to examine whether our child is being unreasonable in their behavior, or whether we might be asking a little bit too much of them in certain situations.

3. Stress and Conflicts.

The frequency of defiance can come from your child’s natural temperament, but there’s also a possibility that your child maintains a level of stress that causes them to react more aggressively to small requests than they would if they hardly had any stress on their shoulders at all. This stress could be coming from expectations of them at school, school bullies, relationships they have with their siblings or other family members, or from observing the relationship between you and your spouse. Take a mental inventory of all of the stressors your child may be internalizing and consider whether these stressors are contributing to the frequency and severity of your child’s defiance. Has a recent stressful life event caused your child to act out even more? It’s possible that giving your child the chance to voice any negative feelings they have about certain situations or recent problems could nip defiance in the bud. Otherwise, the outbursts and bad behavior may keep coming but have no fear– read on to learn how you can help your child communicate their preferences and desires in a more positive way!

How to Help Your Child be Less Defiant

1. What are Your Child’s Triggers?

Pay close attention to the things that seem to set off bad behavior in your child. Do they become defiant only when you give them too many things to do at once, causing them to get overwhelmed? Does your child only respond aggressively to you when they are tired or haven’t eaten for a while? Do they not like to do things without the help of an adult, or feel pressure to perform well when other less familiar people are around? Or is being disobedient their natural temperament, suggesting something more serious, such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)? Once you find patterns in their defiant behavior, you will learn how to prevent or respond to these behaviors more easily.

2. Establish Clear Rules, Expectations and Consequences.

You can work to eliminate the power struggle between you and your toddler by very clearly and calmly communicating the rules of your household and the respective consequences before they have a moment of defiance. This way, your child can make a more conscious decision as to whether they want to be defiant in a future moment before they have made the decision to do so. This provides your child with some practice in self-control, and creates a fair common ground between you and your child. If they happen to forget a rule or need reminding, make it clear that they are welcome to have an open discussion about rules and consequences with you at any time. Also be sure to hold realistic expectations in place, seeing as setting expectations too high can be a huge factor of increased defiance.

3. Practice Patience and Compassion.

Every time your child has a defiant outburst, or does what you ask at the pace of a snail on purpose to get a reaction out of you, make sure to react in a calm manner. This will teach your child that acting out in such a way is not acceptable and won’t be responded to in an equally brash way, but instead calmly and with patience. What your child may really be looking for is a moment of compassion and understanding of how they really feel. This could change the trajectory of your relationship, from defiance being a potential pattern, to it being an opportunity for communication and understanding how your child is really feeling.

4. Keep Verbal Communication Open.

Use your child’s budding understanding of their first language as a tool to strengthen your relationship. If your child is having a tantrum as an act of defiance, wait until they are calm again, physically get down to their level and ask them how they are feeling and what they think caused them to feel that way. Keeping verbal communication open in a phase where your child is trying to learn self-control and emotional regulation could be pivotal to their understanding of how to deal with such overwhelming emotions. Give them the tools to understand how to tell you when they don’t want to do something and why in a calm manner so they can practice it instead of resorting to aggressive or negative behaviors to communicate their disagreements.

5. Teach Skills of Compromise.

In some situations when your child is being boldly defiant, a compromise could have prevented their inappropriate behaviors. For example, if you told your toddler to brush their teeth before getting dressed as a part of their daily routine but they often become defiant about brushing their teeth because they insist they should get dressed first, this could simply be your toddler fighting for some control over their routine. As their parent you can recognize situations like these in which doing one before the other doesn’t matter at all to you, but to your toddler it is one miniscule daily task that actually means a great deal of control to them. Learn when to pick your battles and when to compromise with your toddler. You can also teach them to ask questions of compromise, such as “I want to pick out my outfit now, so can I brush my teeth after I get dressed?” Teaching your child that they can at least ask for options and that you are open to listening to them could eliminate many moments of disobedience between you and your child!

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Dealing with a Defiant Child Try These Tips!