As your child grows, some defiance is normal, from resisting a spoonful of baby food to refusing to get off of the swing set. Around age two or three, kids learn the word “No,” and use it like a magic sword, says Hans Steiner, MD, Stanford University professor emeritus of psychiatry. "They realize that there are certain things that you ask them to do but can’t totally control.”
In general, defiance “shows that a child is becoming more capable,” says Dr. Tom McIntyre, PhD, coordinator of the behavior disorders program at Hunter College in New York. Still, no matter how normal, your child’s refusal can be infuriating.
What's a frustrated parent to do? Here are 10 essential steps to dealing with a defiant child:
- Conduct an ABC Analysis. Your child is defiant for a reason. He is either getting something (a privilege, an item) or avoiding something (doing a chore, participating in an activity). Think about your child’s behavior and write down the Antecedent (what happens just before), the Behavior (his actions), and the Consequences (what does your child receive, or avoid, that might make him continue the behavior). Once you understand the pattern, you can work to change it.
- Consider Brain Chemistry. Children who struggle with defiant behavior may be easily overwhelmed by emotions. Especially during transitions or situations that aren’t clearly explained, your child may have many questions (Is Mom coming back? How long will this take?) and refuse to cooperate simply because they’re overwhelmed and don’t know what else to do.
- Follow Through. If your child says “No” after you give a direction, and you either give up or do the task for him, you’re teaching him that he doesn’t have to do what you ask and, over time, he may become more and more defiant.
- Offer Choice. You’ve asked, cajoled, bargained, and demanded, but your child still won’t follow directions. Present two options that are acceptable to you (“You can wear the blue shirt or the red one,” “We can go the grocery store first, or the dry cleaners”). “Choices give kids power,” says McIntyre, “they feel as if they have a say in what’s happening to them.” You can also offer collaboration. When you offer help, says Steiner, the child learns that they have to do what you ask, and that they can look to others for help if they need it.
- Use Questions, Not Commands. Instead of a command (“Clean your room”), try a question (“What do you need to do to clean up the room?”). That way, rather than defying an order, your child can show off what they know. If you need to, use a reward to encourage your child to complete a task. For example, “I’ll get the ice cream ready while you figure out what to do with the clothes on the floor.”
- Explain Why. As you ask your child to do something, explain why, so he understands the bigger picture and doesn’t feel like you’re asking just because you’re in charge. For example, “Please hold my hand while we cross the street so we can be safe.”
- Recognize the Process. When you’re trying to get your child to do a multi-step task, like cleaning their room, the job might seem overwhelming to him. Give one direction at a time, and praise your child for accomplishing each part, so he feels motivated to keep working.
- Take a Break. If your child throws a tantrum, wait to talk to her until she’s calmed down. Take a break, then talk about what happened using open-ended questions: What were you thinking when this happened? When did you start to get angry? Avoid “Why” questions, as those can seem accusatory. After you’ve talked, if she still hasn’t complied with your request, come up with a plan to address the task you’d asked her to do.
- Change Your Style. Your parenting style can also impact your child’s resistance, says McIntyre. Parents who are authoritarian or permissive may find that their children are defiant to even the simplest directions. But, change your approach and your child’s response will likely change as well.
- Know When to Seek Help. If you’re spending more and more time each day dealing with defiance, it’s time to seek help. A counselor can help you understand your child’s behavior and figure out if his defiance is part of an underlying problem, such as Oppositional Defiance Disorder.
For most children, defiance is a normal part of growing up, and dealing with it is all about communication. So next time you hear “No,” take the opportunity to teach your child how to work with you to make life easier, for both parent and child.