It can make any parent want to scream: your child ignores what you say, or does the opposite… seemingly just to annoy you! It might be a refusal to get ready for school on time, to do homework before playing video games, or to wash his hands before joining you for dinner. What on earth causes this type of behavior?

Defiance is the result of one of four factors, according to Jaydra Hymer, author, child behavior specialist and the founder of Success Pointe, a center for children with behavioral difficulties.

Those factors are:

  1. Physical or Chemical Contributors: He may be short on sleep, hungry, or have a low serotonin (a neurotransmitter) level.
  2. A Controlling or Rigid Parenting Style: Being treated disrespectfully or being overcontrolled can set a child off.
  3. A Permissive Parenting Style: Letting a child make poor choices without consequences can lead to behavioral problems.
  4. His Soul Being Wounded: Maybe something happened to attack his self-worth, sense of security, or sense of fairness and justice.

True defiance is an intentional refusal to do as instructed, but not all misbehavior falls under this definition. Hymer says there are several reasons a child may not do as he was told, yet not be defiant. He may have not heard you, he may have legitimately forgotten, or not had the skills or means to do what he was told.

If your child can be described as defiant, what can you do about it.


The most important, and hardest, thing to do in the face of a defiant child is stay calm.

“Don’t let defiance launch your ‘emotional rockets’, and cause you to get sucked into an emotional crossfire. Instead, calmly let him know that he can say how he feels, but he needs to do it in a way that is polite,” advises Hymer.


Remember the Golden Rule: you can’t expect your child to treat you differently than the way you treat him. Here’s how Hymer recommends fostering respect for a more harmonious household:

  • Listen to your child, and meet his needs if appropriate.
  • Always treat him with respect.
  • If you have been disrespectful to him, apologize and correct your behavior.
  • Treat your partner or ex-partner with respect.
  • Model self-respect; don’t let others treat you disrespectfully.
  • Ban “ugly talk” and yelling from your home. Nobody in the family should be rude, belittle each other, call each other names, or use words such as, “Shut up.”
  • Don’t let your child scold you or other adults.
  • Teach him that it’s fine to express anger, but only in a way that is respectful and considerate.
  • If he talks with an “attitude”, tell him to say what he needs to say in a polite voice.


Look at the various things that could be causing your child to be defiant, and see what you can change through the process of elimination. Hymer suggests using this checklist:

  • Assess your child’s physical health, since lack of sleep or a need to eat can lead to defiant attitudes.
  • Gauge the communication and discipline style of adults who interact with him. Have they been permissive or controlling? Remember that a child will only be habitually defiant if: a) he is allowed to; b) there is a payoff; c) he has been overly-controlled; and/or d) his chemical state is out of balance.
  • If the defiance is sudden, ask if something has made him feel angry, powerless, or resentful. If it has, then help him solve the problem. Is he feeling like he’s being bossed all day, and wants a turn to boss someone back? Has someone been disrespectful or unkind to him? Talk to him about the importance of respect, and show him you understand how he feels.

Hymer adds, “If none of the above is effective, then your child may need to break from everything until he can speak and act in a way that is respectful, and he is ready to do what needs to be done.” Give your child the space he needs, and you’ll find the whole family has more room to get along.