How to Handle a Defiant Child

Is your child constantly negating or ignoring your requests? Read on to find out how you can handle challenging situations of defiant behaviour in your child.

By Amrita Gracias  • 9 min read

How to Handle a Defiant Child

Your child is indulging in rough play with his football in the car park of your building. You repeatedly tell him to stop as it might damage the cars around. He is aware of your concerns but continues his play, doing exactly what you have asked him not to. Is this situation something you can relate to, as a parent?

Or, are you a parent for whom words like ‘No’ and ‘I won’t’ from your child have become all too familiar? Perhaps, you even hoped it was a stage she would grow out of. But, instead, these frustrating situations seem to be occurring even more often.

Both the above scenarios are examples of defiant behaviour in children.

What is defiant behaviour? 

Defiant behaviour occurs when a child refuses to comply to a request or follow instructions or even when he deliberately does something that he knows he shouldn’t be doing. “These behaviours are more frequent as children in the middle childhood and pre-adolescent stages are seeking and asserting their increasing independence and confidence,” says Ms Arundhati Swamy, counsellor and Head – Parent Engagement Programs at ParentCircle. However, she explains that children at this age often lack the skills to seek their independence in appropriate ways, and, therefore, their behaviour is perceived as being defiant. “A parent who uses an autocratic style of parenting expects complete obedience from the child and can easily misread some of the child’s behaviours as that of defiance,” she adds.

“Children tend to be defiant depending on how a parent approaches the situation,” says Ms Arundhati, “and the manner in which this is communicated sets the tone for your child’s response.” She explains that if a parent is firm, then the child understands that she must comply and that her defiance will not be tolerated. However, if a parent is soft and pleading, then the child learns that he can push boundaries. Even a harsh tone will fail to elicit a positive outcome. The child will respond with similar emotions that the parent is exhibiting, which could include anger, frustration and impatience. Or, he could turn offensive, imitating the tone of the parent. This leads him to challenge authority and question rules, which results in frequent power struggles as he moves into his teenage years. Ms Arundhati explains that children can express defiance either aggressively or passively. “Aggressive defiance is easily noticeable as the child acts out the behaviours such as arguments, outbursts and deliberately ignoring requests. Passive defiance, however, is often misunderstood as compliance because the child does what he is required to do but masks his feelings of anger. A build-up of the suppressed frustration can then lead to sudden emotional outbursts,” she explains.

How to Handle a Defiant Child

Here are a few tips from Ms Arundhati to handle your child’s defiance:

  • Communicate clearly: Make sure you are clear about what you want to say and why you are saying it. Use a firm tone and keep your emotions in control. Ensure that your child does not sense any negative emotions. It is okay for him to know that you mean business! Avoid using harsh language or raising your voice as this will only escalate the situation and prompt your child to act with defiance.
  • Pay attention: Children often defy for want of attention. Make an effort to give them and their needs adequate attention. Be sure to appreciate the times when they are cooperative. You could even make a big deal of it, ensuring your child that you acknowledge her efforts at being well-behaved.
  • Avoid frequent criticism: Refrain from constantly criticising or resorting to fault-finding. This encourages your child to use defiance as a shield to protect himself from your haunting negative judgements. Instead, choose a few vital situations when you need to exercise control over your child.
  • Be consistent: Since it is rather common for children to defy rules, ensure you maintain consistency and fairness in enforcing the rules. Also, make sure you let your child know before-hand what the rules are.
  • Work together: You could, perhaps, allow your child to be a part of formulating some, if not all the rules. This will work out to your benefit especially during the pre-adolescent stage of your child. For, during this phase, children are more likely to cooperate with their parents when they are involved in the framing of rulers. Remember, when the parent and child work together, it minimises the chances of defiant behaviour. In fact, children are more likely to be defiant when something is imposed on them.
  • Act in an emergency: If your child’s defiant behaviour warrants his immediate protection, don’t hesitate to act immediately. Pull him away or stop him if he is in a potentially dangerous position or is at the risk of hurting himself or others. Once he becomes calm and settles down, you could discuss the situation with him and explain what necessitated your actions.
  • Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD): If you have tried various methods and approaches to deal with your child’s defiant behaviour and nothing seems to work, seek professional help to rule out the chance of your child suffering from ODD. This is a condition where children cannot help being defiant. Several factors contribute to this behaviour causing persistent patterns in displaying defiance.

Remember that defiance is certainly not an unpleasant phase that is synonymous with toddlers. It is also common for older children to display defiant behaviour and this exasperating demeanour can continue well into their teens if not dealt with appropriately and in time. Do your best to stay calm and stay strong during these challenging times of being a parent!

“Sometimes there might be underlying issues to defiant behaviour. So, look for the reason behind the defiance. In fact, defiance, at times, could be a sign of built-up frustration owing to something that might have happened at school or with his peers. Also, as a parent, you should let your child know about the types of behaviour that will be tolerated and list out unacceptable types of behaviour so that the child is aware of his mistake.”
—Rama Deenadayalan – Counselling Psychologist, Chennai

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