Does your child argue constantly? Does he always seem to do the exact opposite of what you want? Would he eat broccoli just because you were serving ice cream? If so, you may be raising a defiant child, which can be a frustrating, exhausting, and worrisome experience. Worst of all, the harder you try to regain control, the more defiant your child may become. If you’re at your wit’s end, you are not alone, and you can get through this difficult stage.
What Are Some of the Characteristics of a Defiant Child?
Though all children exhibit defiant behavior at some point or another, children with extreme behavioral issues may qualify for the diagnosis of Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), a disorder that is categorized by a pattern of behaviors that are more extreme than those of a typical strong-willed child.
“There is a range of normal defiance or rebellion in kids, but when you’re talking about a child with ODD, you have a child who repeatedly wants to break the rules, and seeks out crossing the line,” explains Dr. Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at The New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and the author of several books, including “Becoming Real.”
In children with ODD, “this type of behavior occurs across multiple settings: at home, in school, with friends, etc.” But it’s important to remember that not all children who are defiant warrant a diagnosis of ODD, as there are varying levels of severity.
A defiant child is angry, resentful and spiteful. In addition, a child may be categorized as defiant if he often loses his temper, gets easily annoyed by others, argues with authority figures and actively tries to break rules. If your child meets this criteria, you may feel the urge to focus on her negative behavior and the loss of control you feel, but you need to realize that this behavior is a symptom of other issues.
“Defiance is not the problem and anger is not the problem,” as “the behavior is the child’s best attempt to get what they want at the time,” notes Dr. Nancy S. Buck, the founder and president of Peaceful Parenting Inc.
What Parenting Techniques Can Feed Into Defiant Behavior?
According to Dr. Buck, “all people are born with 5 psychological needs: safety and security, fun, power, freedom and to have a sense love and belonging.” As such, she says that it’s part of your job as a parent to teach your child “how to get her needs and wants met responsibly and respectfully” by avoiding bad parenting.
If you have a defiant child, you may feel the urge to rule with an iron fist in an attempt to regain control. Unfortunately, this parenting style often makes things worse. According to Dr. Saltz, “having an overly controlling, authoritarian parenting style and the philosophy of ‘kids will do what I tell them to do and I will control everything’ exacerbates defiant behavior.”
When children feel that they have no autonomy or independence, they may act out to prove to themselves — and their parents, nannies, and babysitters — that they can’t be controlled. “Likewise, being overly passive causes problems, as your child can do no wrong and doesn’t learn to internalize the rules of society,” says Dr. Saltz. As such, the best strategy is to incorporate a parenting style that lives somewhere in between these two extremes.
If you have a defiant child, it’s also important that you react to his behavior in an appropriate way. When a child is disrespectful and angry, parents often become angry and yell back, which feels disrespectful and bossy from the child’s perspective, notes Dr. Buck. “Too often parents try to punish the defiant out of their child, and it simply doesn’t work.
Typically, parents either increase the fear — through threats or punishment — or increase the sugar — by bribery — to get their children to act differently,” she explains. According to Dr. Buck, “the best you get from this technique is compliance, but it is temporary,” as it “really stops working eventually.”
Tips and Strategies For Parenting a Defiant Child
Here are some tips and strategies that will help you handle your child’s behavioral issues in the most appropriate and respectful way possible:
- Establish a Set of Well-Defined Rules For Proper Behavior
Set clear rules and limits while keeping an open dialogue with your child. By keeping the lines of communication open, you can help grow your child’s autonomy and develop a level of mutual respect, says Dr. Saltz.
- Check For Underlying Problems
Investigate potential issues such as depression, anxiety or low self-esteem, which may be causing your child to feel an urge to join in with others who are breaking the rules, suggests Dr. Saltz.
- Teach Your Child How to Meet Her Needs in an Appropriate Way
Help your child learn how to meet her needs respectfully and responsibly without anger and defiance. Dr. Buck suggests that you “come up with a solution together.” This helps you both feel like you are being heard, even if you don’t always agree. Instead of asking, ‘How do I stop my child from being defiant?’, ask, ‘What does my child want to gain by being defiant?’
- Stop Engaging Your Child
“If you’re having a tug of war with your child and you drop the rope, he can no longer tug the rope,” explains Dr. Buck. As such, when you’re having a difficult argument, you should take a break from the situation and try to discuss it rationally after everyone has calmed down.
- Get Help
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If your child seems totally out of control, you should reach out to a pediatrician or mental health professional. “Attending to extremely defiant behavior early on is really important,” as “untreated ODD can turn into Antisocial Personality Disorder in adulthood,” says Dr. Saltz. “It’s easier to work on this trend earlier in life.”
For more tips on what to do when your child is acting out, check out Bad Behavior, Power Struggles and Your Child.
Victoria Georgoff is a freelance writer and psychotherapist who enjoys writing about parenting, helping other parents and, of course, being a parent herself.